She looks at the man with a vague sense of wonder and disbelief. Is this actually happening? Or is this a product of her imagination? And, if this is real, what about the moment horrifies and intrigues her? And who is this man?
Paul Verhoeven’s fascinating film Elle — the official entry from France in this year’s race for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — plays with our movie memories of psychological thrillers as it weaves a compelling tale of a powerful woman rendered powerless by her circumstance. Paying tribute to the look, feel and tone of the best of Alfred Hitchcock, especially Vertigo, Elle tells a complex story of how people can be threatened and fascinated at the same time they try to balance reality and fantasy. Yet Verhoeven — who directed the thriller Basic Instinct — resists questioning the integrity of his heroine as he exaggerates her perceptions of what she experiences. Like Hitchcock, he makes sure his audience knows more than any characters on screen.
On film, Elle is a successful entrepreneur of a video game company, living and working in Paris. She works long hours, tries be to a supportive mother, conducts an affair with her best friend’s husband, infuriates her own ex-husband and angers many she encounters. And when she is attacked in her home — by a mysterious man wearing a ski mask — she refuses to contact authorities as she chooses to internalize her fears rather than try to find the intruder.
With this narrative, Verhoeven could choose to create a thriller to consistently entertain. He succeeds. Elle has all the moments we expect from such a film, from walks through darkened hallways, quiet moments on empty streets, struggles to remember and dangers to imagine. But the moviemaker doesn’t stop. He dares to question how responsible Elle may be for what she faces, the degree to which she may encourage the actions that threaten her, the patterns she may create in her life that, when put together, create rhythms of tension and tragedy that encircle her. This is brave for a moviemaker at a time of enlightenment about women’s issues. Alfred Hitchcock could make his thrillers about women as victims because views were limited in the 1940s through 1960s. But Verhoeven ventures his point of view at a time defined by a different sensibility. And that creates a tightrope for this film to walk.
Fortunately, for the movie, Isabelle Huppert is up for this walk with her complex look at how a woman must balance different roles. Relying on her ability to communicate so much with glance and expression, Huppert makes us believe in the woman’s success as well as her vulnerability, her drive as well as her fears. The actress balances the lady’s priorities in a brave portrayal that lives for days after the film ends.
While this is not a film for the family — and contains sequences that can be difficult to absorb — Verhoeven delivers a visual and emotional experience that reaches beyond standard entertainment. Like Hitchcock, this director knows how to make a thriller. And how to celebrate the power of women.
- Content: High. This thought-provoking look at the stages of fear reminds us no matter how successful and comfortable someone may be, anyone can be threatened by others.
- Entertainment: High. As the film explores the layers of a powerful woman’s behavior, moviemaker Paul Verhoeven never forgets he is making a movie.
- Message: Medium. As Verhoeven creates his thriller, he makes us think about the assumptions we make about people we observe. But this is not a message picture. Nor does it try to be.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to see an entertaining movie is always relevant. But it’s not for the family.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers a great time at the movies for adults. But it is not a movie for the kids.
(Elle, running 2 hours, 10 minutes, is rated R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language. Read about the movie thrillers that may have inspired moviemaker Paul Verhoeven in Arts and Leisure online at arts.hersamacorn.com.)
Rating: Four and a half popcorn buckets.
Elle recalls Hitchcock
by Mark Schumann
With his thriller Elle, Paul Verhoeven recalls the powerful entertainments created by Alfred Hitchcock, films that explore how women put their lives into their own hands despite the men who surround them. While Verhoeven brings his own brand of layering to the tale of Elle, he reminds us how fascinating Hitchcock’s women could be. Let’s take a look.
Marion Crane in Psycho
This seemingly quiet woman tries to reach beyond the boundaries of laws and reason to create her own path to happiness. While her boyfriend, played by John Gavin, can’t figure out how to make things work for the couple, Marion – beautifully portrayed by Janet Leigh – refuses to let him restrict how she thinks or what she does. And when she begins to realize that, perhaps, she acts too quickly, she doesn’t hesitate to change her plans. But, first, she decides to take a shower at the Bates Motel.
Eve Kendall in North By Northwest
This somewhat icy woman, portrayed on screen by Eva Marie Saint, appears to be a generic femme fatale in the film’s early scenes. But we quickly learn that there’s more to this lady than first meets the eye and that, perhaps, the superficial first impression is what this lady has in mind. As Hitchcock keeps his camera focused on star Cary Grant, the savvy Saint steals every one of her scenes through the quiet intensity of her glances and the layered texture of her readings. And she maintains control of this relationship through the final credits.
Lisa Fremont in Rear Window
This driven woman – who thrives in New York City society when outside her boyfriend’s apartment – defines Hitchcock’s view of how powerful ladies can manipulate any man they choose. While James Stewart may think he is in control of his environment, as a photographer who spends too much time watching his neighbors, Grace Kelly – as the complex Lisa – sets the rhythm for the relationship and the film. And if Kelly isn’t enough, Hitchcock relies on the great character actress Thelma Ritter to offer Stewart her views, too.
Madeleine and Judy in Vertigo
This mysterious woman – who may seem less a character than an illusion –confuses James Stewart through most of this classic film. As portrayed by Kim Novak, just the right ambiguous actress to play an ambiguous role, Madeleine/Judy becomes a figment of one man’s imagination as he tries to orchestrate his survival following a traumatic accident. The character and the performance reveal Hitchcock’s fascination with women who lead their men to potential destruction while maintaining their own integrity.
Sarah Sherman in Torn Curtain
This confident woman – one of the least considered of Hitchcock’s heroines – never lets Paul Newman get too far out of her sight in an under-rated look at Cold War tensions in the 1960s. After playing Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp, Julie Andrews may seem an unlikely candidate for a Hitchcock thriller. But she makes the performance work because she understands Sarah’s fundamental decency. Never do we doubt that Sarah wants the best for her man. She just may not always know the best way to protect him.
Jo Conway McKenna in The Man Who Knew Too Much
This surprising woman – a former Broadway star who becomes a physician’s wife – finds herself in the middle of murder and mayhem in Morocco and London in this entertaining thriller about mistaken identities. Day is surprisingly convincing as a woman devastated by her son’s kidnapping who challenges her husband’s sincerity in solving the case. And, because Day is a singer, she reminds us (and her son) that she can certainly sing a happy tune.
Yes, Alfred Hitchcock loved to make movies about women.
And we still like to watch them.
See you at the movies.