Every single year, without fail, there is always a film, nominated in one of the ‘big’ Oscar categories, that doesn’t find its way on to British screens until what feels like months after the ceremony has actually taken place. Here I am, doing my best to get over the eternally cringe inducing Best Picture cock-up at the end of this year’s ceremony, when all of a sudden I am forced to return to the scene of the crime to fill in the one remaining piece of the 89th Academy Awards puzzle, Isabelle Huppert’s Best Actress nominated performance in French psychological thriller Elle.
Elle tells the disturbing story of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a woman and successful head of a video game company, who is brutally raped one day by a home intruder. With reservations about contacting the police due to seemingly unresolved childhood issues surrounding her father, an infamous serial killer serving life in prison, Michèle continues in the rigid yet complicated routine that she lives by, interacting with a host of characters including her adult son Vincent (Joan Bloquet), elderly mother Irène (Judith Magre), co-workers and friends Anna and Robert (Anne Consigny and Christian Berkel) and neighbours Rebecca and Patrick (Virginie Efira and Laurent Lafitte). I have seen many reviews categorising this film as a ‘rape revenge’ narrative, but in truth it is much more nuanced and complicated than that. Whilst the core thread of the story does revolve around Michèle’s search for and discovery of her attacker, the film does not end with this discovery, instead continuing past this point and developing in to something that begins to pose difficult and uncomfortable situations for the audience. Can one ever forgive their rapist? Is there ever a chance for real human connection to be made after such a heinous act has occurred? All these elements and more are explored within the plot, with rape being at the centre of all events but a far cry from the cut and dry justice stories of something like, for example, 1988’s The Accused.
Along with this defining event and plot driver, what the film also presents is a really engrossing and captivating case study of a character who does not seem to have a single truly healthy relationship with any of the people that she calls friends and family. From jealousy over her ex’s new girlfriend, to numerous affairs to unprofessional practise within the workplace, Michèle, even in the midst of her brutal attack, never comes across as a ‘victim’, and there is a level of psychological detachment that accompanies all of her actions that at times is cool, at times is stoic and at times is down right disturbing. The way that the audience are thrown in to Michèle’s world automatically aligns us with her, but through the course of the film, despite the sympathetic nature of her predicament, what one has to come to terms with is that whilst she is an enigmatic, captivating woman, she isn’t necessarily a nice one. The film is distressing, visceral and peppered with dark humour that works to even further jar the viewer’s feelings about both the subject matter and the different characters.
There really isn’t much to say about Isabelle Huppert that hasn’t already been said over the years. Quite frankly, to call her the ‘French Meryl Streep’ would be doing her a disservice. At 63, Huppert takes on screen risks that Streep wouldn’t have done even in her late 70s/early 80s peak. She seems to take a professional delight in playing characters that portray the darker side of humanity, from an ‘anti-victim’ of rape here to an S&M loving, self mutilating introvert in The Piano Teacher to a mother with incestuous designs on her teenage son in Ma Mere, the trick to her success being that it never feels like exploitation or simple shock value. As Michèle, Huppert absolutely commands the screen, taking up every inch of space with her quiet, confident presence. She oozes the kind of cinematic charisma and ease that can only come from over 100 film credits, and though this trans-Atlantic ‘breakout’ role might be the first time that many non-European film lovers are hearing about her, it’s safe to say that term living legend is one that fits like a glove.
The ability to convincingly read lines is something that is almost taken for granted in acting, but it isn’t until you watch someone like Huppert, someone who can truly make you believe that the words coming of their mouth are completely organic, that you realise what a damn hard job it is to be a genuinely great performer. Can you tell I’m a little bit in love?
Overall, Elle is an unusual, at times challenging watch, one that doesn’t take any prisoners with regards to its representation of rape and its nuanced explorations of blanket words like ‘victim’. As far as I’m concerned it is just another entry in to the ever extending 30 plus year long career high of Isabelle Huppert. Her outsider status in Hollywood meant that she was never going to pick up the Oscar, but in my personal opinion, only Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy could have rivalled her among the nominees.