Saturday, September 10, 2016


I've been a fan of director Paul Verhoeven's work from his early Dutch films--Spetters in particular.  Well, perhaps not of all his films (I don't know if I even saw Showgirls).  He's been absent from making American films for 20 years, so Elle arrives as a wonderful surprise--a French film that may be the best one that both Verhoeven and Huppert have ever made, at, currently, ages 78 and 63, respectively (ripeness is all!).  I'm not alone in my reaction:  when it debuted at Cannes, it received a 7-minute standing ovation.

Verhoeven is known to be provocative, and in that respect this film will not disappoint.
I knew it was about a woman who's raped, and I expected it to be about her revenge.  How reductive!  This film will confound all expectations.  First, Michèle's (Huppert) actions after she's assaulted and raped are, at least initially, inexplicable.  Second, her reaction to finding out the identity of her rapist is also, initially, inexplicable.  But as we gradually glean bits and pieces of her backstory, a history of trauma emerges, and her actions then become (almost) completely understandable.

As a psychotherapist, I loved and appreciated the psychological complexity of this story.  As a writer, I was mightily impressed with how screenwriter David Birke handled the gradual exposition of Michèle's backstory--no mean feat.  (The script was an adaptation of Philippe Dijan's French novel Oh.)  It's masterful writing that serves to sustain suspense and mystery, and I can't wait to get my hands on the script.

Because of Michèle's trauma history, she bears a heavy burden of shame.  In the film she tells her closest friend and colleague Anna (Anne Consigny), "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all."  Shame resulting from trauma appears to be central to Michèle's characterological makeup.  As a result she engages in what might appear to be immoral or sadistic behaviors--but which I can tell you, as a therapist, are quite understandable given her history.

I love that Anna and Michèle are, like the leads of the excellent television series Halt and Catch Fire, best friends and colleagues as co-owners of  a video-gaming company (with all young male employees), and that their relationship survives, well, being severely compromised.

I also appreciate that the film depicts middle-aged women as sexual beings.  How alien is that from American films?

Most of all, I love that this film was made by and with aging actors and filmmakers.  It shows that there need be no end to productivity or creativity.  Everyone involved with this project is at the height of their powers.  It gives me hope. (And let us not forget that writer-director George Miller made arguably the best film of his careeer so far, Mad Max:  Fury Road, in his 70s.  Having just seen The Road Warrior  again on it's 35th anniversary, I have to say that I can't imagine having the energy to make the superior Fury Road).  

I should add that Elle has humor as well--c'est très important!  There's a Chrismas dinner scene that Verhoeven has said it is the one he is most proud of in the film.  And a scene involving the ashes of a deceased relative that, with The Big Lebowski, is a classic.

Elle opens in the U.S. in early November.  Here's a link to the trailer:

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