This year’s Cannes Film Festival ended with a bang Saturday with the premiere of Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” an entertaining and thought-provoking thriller based on Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…” that features a knockout performance by Isabelle Huppert (here’s our review).
The picture marks something of a second comeback for the filmmaker who was a mainstay of Hollywood in the late ’80s and ’90s with pictures such as “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” making a significant cultural impact. The 77-year-old director hasn’t worked in Hollywood since 2000’s “Hollow Man” and based on his comments during the “Elle” official press conference, he won’t be returning anytime soon.
“I’m not positive about the further development of all [this] science-fiction stuff,” Verhoeven said. “I have a feeling that everything has been said and done and I think we should go back to a bit more normality. All these big superheroes and whatever, I don’t know what dream this is of the United States, but I feel that we lost contact completely with normal people, and that the story of us is more interesting than that of a superhero.”
Verhoeven also says he hasn’t seen many good screenplays come his way from the United States, revealing that the projects he’s been pitched were too similar to his previous work or simply didn’t interest him. In his words, the French-funded “Elle” was “something different.”
“Sure, there are elements of what I’ve done [in the past], but in general it was new for me to do this kind of thriller,” he said. “There [are also] elements of tragedy and comedy and also tension. I always felt that I make movies because I like to do those kinds of movies and not because I want to make money or something like that. That’s boring.”
Huppert, who has won the Best Actress prize at Cannes twice, is on the short list of great actresses who still haven’t earned an Academy Award nomination. It’s still early in the upcoming awards season, but Huppert’s fierce portrayal in “Elle” should at least put her in the Best Actress discussion in the months ahead.
Huppert plays Michèle, a late-40s divorcee who has a son (Jonas Bloquet) that can’t get his life together, an eccentric mother (Judith Magre) who is threatening to marry a much younger man, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) who is floundering almost as badly as his son, and a father convicted of a series of brutal murders that she hasn’t seen in almost 40 years. Throw in the fact the future of the video-game company she co-owns rests on the success of its next release and it’s impressive you can barely see her sweat. Truth be told, those issues are barely at the forefront of her mind, because in the first scene in the movie, she’s attacked and raped in her home by a masked assailant. Many will question the unconventional way Michèle handles her assault, a plan that begins with her not going to the police. Huppert is already prepared for the criticism.
“I think first, the story shouldn’t be taken as a [realistic] story. It’s not a statement about a woman being raped. That’s not what it is about,” Huppert stated. “I’ve read a number of times that Philippe’s book and Paul’s film should be taken like a fantasy. The fantasy is in yourself, and it’s not necessarily something you want to happen, but it’s something you couldn’t confess. It happens to this woman in particular as an individual.”
Djian agrees, noting that at one point Michèle says, “Well, I’ve experienced things that are ten times worse with men I’ve chose myself.” That being said, the author does admit it seems a bit brutal on screen, but he has an analogy that might help justify her actions. Speaking through a translator, he explains, “To lose a bit of weight this summer, people go on diets. For this woman, it’s as though she wanted to go on a diet and there is a lot of chocolate in the cupboard. Should she eat it or throw the chocolate bar out right away? She’s really searching deep within herself to see how to react. It starts with a rape, but it could have started differently.”
It’s the choices Michèle eventually makes that sparked Verhoeven’s interest in the project in the first place.
“In the novel and in the movie, there are elements that could point to what is happening in the third act after she discovers who is the rapist, but Phillip and I have both [decided against any sort of] Freudian explanation,” Verhoeven said. “I felt this movie more than any I have made leaves things open for the audience to fill in.”
“Elle” was acquired for domestic distribution by Sony Pictures Classics and is expected to hit theaters later this year.