Isabelle Huppert has made a career of playing prickly, disturbed, often downright unpleasant figures.
For “Elle” this reliable fixture of French cinema has taken everything she’s learned in nearly four decades of screen acting and created a character who is charismatic and compelling even as she engages in behavior that most of us would find morally questionable and psychologically twisted.
She more than deserves her Golden Globe win.
Paul Verhoeven’s film begins with the sounds of a violent assault. The fiftysomething Michele (Huppert) has been attacked in her Paris home by a masked intruder who beats and rapes her.
Michele doesn’t report the incident to the cops. Instead she cleans up the mess, trashes her dress, takes a bath, and gets herself tested for STDs. New locks, a hatchet, and some pepper spray — she’s good to go.
David Birke’s screenplay (based on Philippe Djian’s novel) blends Hitchcockian suspense with one of the deepest character studies the movies have given us in ages.
Most women would be incapacitated by such an attack. Not Michele. As we learn, she is tough, smart and ruthless.
With her partner Anna (Anne Consigny) she runs a successful firm where programmers half their age crank out sex-and-violence-drenched video games. “When a player guts an orc,” she tells her staff, “we need to feel the blood on his hands.”
Michele views the world around her — and the lesser beings that inhabit it —with a sense of irony that stops just short of contempt. She can be funny, charming. . . and she’s certainly attractive. But apparently she needs no one except her indifferent cat.
Not her doofus son (Jonas Bloquet) who works in a fast food franchise, has a pregnant money-grubbing girlfriend and comes around regularly to borrow cash.
Not her former husband (Charles Berling), a failed novelist halfheartedly trying to sell an idea for a video game.
Not her Botoxed mother (Judith Magre) who consorts with a young gigolo.
The film balances Michele’s various relationships and sexual affairs against the growing paranoia spawned by the rape.
She gets anonymous texts from her assailant, who compliments Michele on her sexual attractiveness “for a woman your age.” The computers in her office suddenly feature animation of a princess being assaulted. Michele’s face has been pasted over the victim’s.
A neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) reports chasing away a masked figure lurking around Michele’s home.
In the end, Michele’s behavior will leave audiences shocked, disturbed, perhaps even indignant. (Michele doesn’t set much stock in “appropriate” feminist responses.)
Not everything in “Elle” works. We learn that when Michele was 10 her religiously obsessed father went on a killing spree, and she has been considered an accomplice. The digression feels like too much melodrama piled onto an already thick personal history.
But Huppert’s performance — coupled with the most subtle and bleakly sardonic direction of Verhoeven’s often bombastic career (“RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”) — is flabbergasting.
Michele doesn’t really care what others think of her, and neither does Huppert the actress. Whether we like her character is irrelevant. She plows ahead, massaging minutiae of personality and mining thick veins of perversity.
Even if you’re appalled by Michele, you must stand in awe of the actress bringing her to life.