This is not one to recommend to the Sunday School class at your church.  Director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”) has proven to be a provocateur when it comes to sexuality, and “Elle” is no exception.

            Michele Leblanc (Isabell Huppert) owns a graphic design company that specializes in video games, especially ones that unembarrasingly focus on juvenile guys: after vanquishing the enemy, “going after” the sexy heroine.  Michele is certainly unembarrassed about her own sexuality:  divorced and with a grown son who lives with his girlfriend, Michele messes around with the spouse of her best friend, just for the recreation.  She also voyeurs out her front window at the neighbor across the street, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), and even provocatively demonstrates some clandestine under-the-table interest when she sits next to him at a neighborhood dinner.  Despite being married to a beautiful young woman, Rebecca (Virginie Efira), Patrick is also interested, but not in the way Michele intends. And just for good measure, her ex, Richard (Charles Berling), has taken up with a beautiful young yoga instructor, Helene (Vimala Pons).

            Michele's son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is struggling in a dead-end job, but seems completely devoted to his pregnant fiancee, Josie (Alice Isaaz), but she has a mean streak and a quick temper.  Not to mention a wandering eye of her own.  Isabelle's mother, Irene (Judith Magre) has not only indulged in several botox facelifts, but taken up with a courtier, Ralf (Raphael Lenglet), whom she originally paid, but now claims she's in love with, a prospect which horrifies Michele.  But all these family considerations are trumped by an  attack on Michele by a masked intruder.

            At first, she is so distraught that she's can't even process it, much less speak about it.  She refuses to go to the police, because she has a long and difficult relationship with the legal authorities:  her father had gone on a serial murdering spree when Michele was still a child, and he is still in prison. She feels they treated her like some sort of accomplice, and therefore won't have anything to do with them.  Even to report her own rape at the hands of a ski-masked attacker.  She keeps having flashbacks to that horrific moment, sometimes imagining herself somehow getting the upper hand and managing to combat his rough advances.  What she won't admit to herself is that there's a small part of her own kinky sexuality that might have actually enjoyed a little rough play, but of course in a controlled situation.  She also barely admits to herself that she once had flirtation with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), which might have ended more seriously if they'd been able to stop laughing.

            Complicated enough for you?  The Europeans in general, and the French in particular, do not always have the same assumptions about nudity as we Americans do---perhaps because their history does not include the Puritan movement?  Anyway, the sexuality is definitely “out there” in this film, but it's also attached to strong emotions, which are themselves not always encased in marital fidelity.  In fact, come to think about it, nobody here is happily married, which tells you something about the value system in place here (which can be summarily described as “if it feels good, do it”).  And how does one discuss a rape over a fine dinner with friends in a tableclothed restaurant where the waiter is offering a vintage wine?  Yes, the incongruity is almost comical, which, if intentional, is dark humor, indeed.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When has a family member introduced a new romantic interest who underwhelmed you?  Did you manage to “play nice”?

2)                  When have you seen friendship suddenly develop into something sexual?  How did that affect the friendship?

3)                  Rebecca, at the neighborhood dinner, offers to say grace, a request which is awkwardly received by the others around the table, because they're obviously not religious.  Would this initiative now be considered impolite and socially incorrect?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association