Is­abelle Hup­pert at her best in thriller “Elle”

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By Ann Hornaday

66¼5 Drama. In French with sub­ti­tles. R. 131 min­utes.

“Elle” is an el­e­gant, nasty piece of work, the kind of twisty, hand­somely pro­duced, nominally erotic thriller that plays al­most as a par­ody of French films that mis­take patho­log­i­cal dis­en­gage­ment for stylish savoir faire.

This adap­ta­tion of a Philippe Djian novel is di­rected by Paul Ver­ho­even, which is its first tell. As sleek and so­phis­ti­cated as the film is (or pre­tends to be), it’s es­sen­tially pulp dressed up in cou­ture threads: a ready-made mix of sex, vi­o­lence and teas­ingly provoca­tive at­mos­phere that’s right up the al­ley of the man who gave us “Ba­sic In­stinct” and “Show­girls.”

If this all sounds neg­a­tive, that’s be­cause “Elle” is a tough movie to like, but not to ad­mire, al­beit from a dis­tance. It’s cer­tainly en­gross­ing, keep­ing view­ers con­tin­u­ally off-bal­ance and un­sure of their own al­ter­nately out­raged or se­duced re­sponses.

The movie starts in the dark, with just the noise of break­ing glass and china and a woman’s des­per­ate­sound­ing moans. The first shot is of the im­pas­sive face of her cat, haugh­tily ob­serv­ing what turns out to be a bru­tal rape com­mit­ted by a ski-masked stranger who looks like he just jumped out of a bad piece of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fan-fic.

The vic­tim, it turns out, is Michèle Leblanc (Is­abelle Hup­pert), who, as “Elle” un­folds, adamantly re­fuses the ti­tle of vic­tim. The head of a video-game com­pany that spe­cial­izes in de­pic­tions of women be­ing bru­tal­ized, she at one point de­mands that a de­signer make the con­vul­sions of a woman be­ing at­tacked in one of her games “more or­gas­mic.”

So far, so prob­lem­atic in a film that hinges on ques­tions, not just about the iden­tity of Michèle’s rapist, but about her own com­plic­ity — and maybe even plea­sure — in the crime, and her un­will­ing­ness to take her case to le­gal au­thor­i­ties. A hint lies in the way she runs her busi­ness: She’s bet­ter with nar­ra­tive than in­ter­face, sug­gest­ing that con­trol­ling her own story is far more im­por­tant to Michèle than the fle­s­hand-blood peo­ple who glide in and out of her life.

Beau­ti­fully made with ex­quis­ite taste and eye for de­tail, “Elle” is pretty, but it can’t be de­scribed as a plea­sure to watch. Its use of sex­ual vi­o­lence, both as a nar­ra­tive de­vice and philo­soph­i­cal ful­crum, is too op­por­tunis­tic, even cyn­i­cal, not to give view­ers a case of the squirms. And Michèle’s con­tra­dic­tions — as well as the salient char­ac­ter traits of her neigh­bors, friends, co­work­ers, ex-hus­band and son — feel less or­ganic than con­ve­niently man­u­fac­tured for the sake of sus­pense and scor­ing points about gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions.

Although “Elle” is nominally about Michèle, re­garded through an­other lens, it’s just as much about the men in her life, and how they go about per­form­ing var­i­ous ver­sions of mas­culin­ity, whether it’s the knight in shin­ing ar­mor, the bru­tal vic­tim­izer, the gigolo or the hen­pecked, pas­siveag­gres­sive Peter Pan. They’re all coolly ob­served by a woman who seems skep­ti­cal of all of it, es­pe­cially when she arms her­self with pep­per spray and a me­dieval-look­ing ax.

“Elle” would be too clever by half — not to men­tion fa­tally of­fen­sive — were it not for Hup­pert, who in her por­trayal of Michèle owns the movie from its open­ing mo­ments to its bizarre, but not en­tirely sur­pris­ing, de­noue­ment. Chic, se­vere, fe­ro­ciously fo­cused through­out a per­for­mance that de­mands a trans­par­ent dis­play of vi­o­lently con­flict­ing emo­tions, Hup­pert is the best and maybe the only rea­son to see “Elle,” or to be­lieve that it pos­sesses some­thing of value beyond pseudo-smart S&M tit­il­la­tion. She im­bues Michèle with a fas­ci­nat­ing roux of chilly re­serve and con­found­ing sym­pa­thy, el­e­vat­ing a movie that could oth­er­wise be re­duced to ex­ploita­tive dreck.

It’s char­ac­ter­is­tic of the film’s cu­ri­ous moral uni­verse that the ac­tress at its cen­ter in­spires noth­ing but al­le­giance, no mat­ter how trou­bling her char­ac­ter’s be­hav­ior be­comes. I re­serve the right to have mis­giv­ings about the movie she’s in, but for now there can be no doubt: I’m with her.

Is­abelle Hup­pert and Arthur Mazet in “Elle.”

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