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Cannes 2016: "Elle"

The sun is shining brilliantly on the palm trees as more carry-ons are seen rolling through the streets by the hour.  It’s the last official day of the 69th Cannes Film Festival, and the last day on which 21 film directors in competition can dream of that other Palme, the little gold one that comes mounted on a block of crystal and encased in a velvety box. Tomorrow evening, all speculation ends and the jury will have their say in a ceremony in which Australian director and jury president George Miller will be king for a day.

Elle,” by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct"), was the final competition film to premiere in this morning’s press screening. It’s Verhoeven’s first movie in French, and is based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian. "Elle" feels like an arch black comedy with a disturbing element of sexual violence, so it’s surprising to read in the press notes that the director considers it a serious drama about an aggressive woman seduced into playing a sadistic game.

In this genre-bending, up-and-down ride, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is a tough, brittle bitch on wheels, to put it mildly. She owns a successful studio that produces violent video games in which female avatars are violated by fantastical multi-tentacled monsters. She treats her employees like dirt, callously takes love where she wants or finds it, and looks down on her weak-willed adult son as the dimwit that he is. Even her randy diva of a mother hates her. 

In the film’s opening scene, Michèle is brutally raped by a masked home invader, who punches and beats her, rips off her clothing, and leaves her gasping and crying on the floor amid a litter of broken glassware and a crumpled tablecloth. She doesn’t call the police, but cleans up the mess and resumes life as usual. Similar incidents will be voyeuristically repeated in even greater detail over the course of the story.

The puzzle is deciding whether “Elle” is a heavily ironic comedy/drama or just an inadvertently funny and pretentiously overreaching drama. The depiction of incidents at Michèle’s Christmas dinner for friends, family and secret lovers begs the question. At the dinner table, her loopy mother announces her engagement to a opportunistic male prostitute, her escort. Michèle’s foot is seen caressing her married neighbor’s crotch under the table. With a smile, she later regales the man with the story of her personal history as the daughter of an imprisoned serial killer. In the background, other guests watch midnight mass on TV. 

"Elle'"s thriller aura was fatally altered into that of a dark comedy when this morning's audience could be heard laughing at many junctures. This possible hijacking of the script’s intent can be credited to Huppert’s performance. Her character’s arrogance and snippy meanness has such an over-the-top quality it would be difficult to interpret it as anything but inspired tongue-in-cheek caricature.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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