After the assault, the woman reacts rather sanguinely. She tidies up, takes a bath, orders sushi by phone. She does not contact the police. She, in fact, goes on with her day-to-day life, sorting through various domestic and work issues.
Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is divorced and lives alone, but interacts frequently with a close (if problematic) “family” circle: There is her layabout adult son and his awful girlfriend; her ex-husband (and his new girlfriend); her bon vivant mother (and her boy toy); her best friend and business partner; her lover (the husband of BFF); and some chatty neighbors.
Verhoeven keeps the focus on Michele, and these folks weave through her life, gradually illuminating but not totally explaining Michele’s character and her response to the rape. The film is a hybrid: part slow-burn revenge thriller as Michele seeks her rapist, and part potboiler incorporating several standard melodramatic storylines. There are elements of dark comedy — the rape has a witness, a pet cat that just looks on coolly, as cats do — and these typical French bourgeois characters are slightly exaggerated to illustrate unpleasant traits like fecklessness or rudeness.
Viewers should know that the film steers into increasingly baroque psychosexual territory. The rapist begins to taunt Michele, and she seems more intrigued than frightened; she mentally revisits the assault, playing out different scenarios, but not with the responses we’d expect. We learn that a steady stream of violence and sexual drama has run through Michele’s life; we are witnessing a resolute woman who has developed sturdy coping skills, be they for her family’s dark history or the jerks she has to put up with at work. She’s unapologetic, summing up an assortment of bad behavior: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.”
Even if you’re fine with the tricky subject matter, Elle suffers from too many subplots, and runs on 15 minutes too long. But the work is a real showcase for Huppert, who at 63 is wiry, intense and utterly compelling. Michele is not likable in the standard sense — she is flinty, even cruel — but Huppert makes her somebody you can’t look away from. There’s a fair amount of pulpy nonsense and borderline exploitative material that swirls around, but Huppert grounds most of it.
In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Jan. 20. Harris