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Cannes Reviews: Huppert and Verhoeven at Peak of Perversity in ELLE
by Alex Deleon <film festivals.com>
It's been a while since we have seen the work of Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, now 77, the author of Basic Instinct and Total Recall. His last film, Black Book (Zwarte Boek ) 2006, was a return home to The Netherlands after a 20 year hiatus in Hollywood. Zwarte Boek, a WWII Jewish resistance thriller starring Carice van Houten was recognized in Holland not only as a glorious homecoming for Verhoeven but was also voted The Best Dutch Film of All Time in a poll of the public taken in 2008.
The psychological thriller ELLE is Verhoeven's first film in French and stars the best French actress in captivity by a country mile, Isabelle Huppert, now a hard-to-believe age 63.
In this one she plays a still very sexually desirable middle aged redhead, Michèle Leblanc, the hard-as-nails boss of a Major Video Games enterprise, a fiercely independent single women who plays the field and gets violently raped in the very first scene of the film by a fully masked intruder in black body rubber who breaks into her well appointed apartment and leaves her battered, panting, and nearly senseless on the floor, after getting his rocks off (and hers as well!) ...
This event is witnessed only by Michele's unperturbed pet cat, an important side player in this study of extreme perversion á deux.
The theme of sexual assault by an unknown assailant is also at the center of another competition film, the Iranian entry "Forushande" (The Salesman) but Verhoeven's treatment is infinitely more profound and far more gripping. No comparison -- different league altogether cinematically speaking.
As for Isabelle Huppert this woman is in a class by herself as an actress -- something like Bette Davis way back in the God Old golden Hollywood Days.
.Too bad Davis isn't around today to see Isabelle Huppert carrying on with the same kind of fearless screen magic ~ Both actresses willing to accept distasteful roles no other actress would dare to for fear of "damaging their image" -- and turning such roles into singular transcendent instances of screen interpretation. One thinks of Davis in "Whatever happened to Baby Jane" or Huppert in half a dozen other roles in which she somehow turned female psychotics into appealing figures; A woman who slowly poisons her husband in Chabrol's "Merci pour le chocolat", "La Cérémonie" in which Huppert, a whacked out post office employee incites a shy maid to murder the entire family she works for ... or "Ma Mère" in which Huppert plays a polymorphous bi-sexual nymphomaniac who eventually seduces her timid son in a closing incestual death embrace --
All roles no other actress would touch with a ten foot pole or be able to interpret with such verve that audiences are awed and fascinated -- and ultimately entertained.
Working with basically instinctual director Verhoeven Huppert has practically outdone herself if such is possible. The character from a currently best selling novel ("Oh" by Philippe Djian) that she brings to life in this film adaptation is an upper class business woman who, for whatever reasons of her own, gets her sexual jollies by being violently battered and raped -- in this case by the masked sadist who lives next door, a seemingly mild mannered gentleman in everyday life, married to a sincere deeply religious young woman. At the same time she needs to get revenge on the rapist for feeding her deep seated pathological masochism and paradoxically befriends his blithely unsuspecting wife. Verhoeven really goes to town with this material creating a monstrously entertaining picture of the darkest facets of upper class perversity lurking just under the surface of polished bourgeois propriety.
The treatment of an extremely violent S&M relationship that is seemingly consensual -- or is it -- between sophisticated adults which will eventually lead to manslaughter, is presented with no excursions into psychoanalytic explanation -- take it or leave it -- as Michele takes her punishment and ultimately her revenge.
Huppert has worked with other cunningly perverse directors before like Chabrol and Breillat, but teaming up with Paul Verhoeven who is clearly the master of molding titillation, shock, intrigue, and entertainment all into a single cohesive package, the French superstar actress has scaled a new dazzling peak. The title ELLE may seduce some into thinking this is a film about high fashion (which in a way it is!) but those with soft stomachs beware -- this is a series of shock waves that could shiver the timbers of even the most blasé intellectuals or sharply critical ladies and gentlemen.
Please bear in mind that ELLE is a four letter word!
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