Time Out says
Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has an ace up his sleeve in the form of an Oscar-worthy performance from Isabelle Huppert in this rape-revenge thriller
At the end of Elle, the first credit to appear onscreen reminds us that we've just watched a Paul Verhoeven film. Well, no shit. Elle might just be the most Paul Verhoeven film yet, due to its willingness to push buttons, explore transgressive territory and take constant delight in venturing where the vast majority of filmmakers would fear to tread. This is, after all, the man who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Adapted by David Birke from the novel by Philippe Djian, the film has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Isabelle Huppert, giving an Oscar-worthy (and impeccably dressed) performance as Michele, a video game company founder living in Paris who is raped and stalked by a ski-masked assailant. She's the daughter of a notorious mass murderer and perhaps growing up despised by the media and public is part of why she does not respond conventionally to her attacker, in a challenging story that will surely upset a lot of people - not that Verhoeven minds.
Elle is really at least three films at once. Michele's extended family, consisting of ex-husband, son, mother and their respective other halves, belong to a very French comedy of manners. A dinner party scene plays out exquisitely, with many tiny moments to cherish, not least Michele either forgetting, or bitchily pretending to forget, the name of her Liza Minelli-esque mother's latest toy-boy.
At other moments, Elle plays as a sophisticated thriller, with the mystery of which acquaintance might be the masked attacker shifting and reshaping itself as we share in Michele's heightened state of cool appraisal, scanning every man on screen to figure out whether he might be the faceless assailant.
As the film progresses, it takes a deep dive into dangerous territory that could well be viewed as toxic misogyny, or a disturbing provocation, or a complex psychological portrait of an unusual woman. The film itself supports different readings, but the sheer brilliance and mastery of Huppert's controlled, many-faceted performance will help to rally support to the latter perspective. The fictional character Huppert creates is simply so lived-in and plausible that to insist Michele react differently to her own lived experience would be as obstinate as insisting that a person in real life cannot possibly feel the way that they say they feel. Whatever your take, it's a film that will inspire debate for decades to come. - Catherine Bray
Cast and crew