I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 54th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 30th-October 16th.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven is a Dutch director who has been making movies for over forty years. Sci-fi hits “Robocop” and “Total Recall” were relatively well-received in the United States, and the quality of his films went severely downhill from there with mixed reviews for “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Hollow Man,” and the truly terrible “Showgirls” in between. He made a critical comeback in 2008 by returning to his home country to make the campy Holocaust thriller “Black Book,” which most except this critic liked, and, fortunately, Verhoeven has now directed his finest film to date, an exceptional character study in French.
In the first scene of “Elle,” Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant. Wary of the police because of negative treatment she received when, years earlier, her father was arrested for perpetrating horrific crimes, Michèle keeps the assault to herself and immediately returns to work as the head of a video game company. As she navigates relationships with all the men in her life, including her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), her ex-husband Richard (Charles Bering), her best friend’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), and her attractive married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), she takes her own steps to find the man who attacked her and take control of her life.
At a NYFF press conference after the film, Verhoeven noted that this film couldn’t be made in America. Though adapted from a French novel by American screenwriter David Birke, this is a distinctly European film that pushes boundaries in a number of ways. It’s far from a typical revenge story, and its extensive use of sexuality amplifies and makes it extremely layered and complex. There are a staggering number of plotlines all in focus at the same time, and it’s a magnificently functional film that gives devoted attention to all of its characters, no matter how minimal.
Huppert, who is anchoring this film and another NYFF selection, “Things to Come,” is exceptionally suited for this role, self-assured and confident in some moments and completely vulnerable and susceptible to those around her at others. Most of all, she seizes on the film’s unexpected opportunities for humor in her perception of those with whom she interacts. She is surrounded by a tremendous ensemble, including all four men previously mentioned, Anne Consigny as Michèle’s best friend and business partner Anna, and Alice Isaaz as Vincent’s monstrous pregnant girlfriend Josie. This is far from a conventional film, but the tremendous combination of a highly skilled and entertaining cast, a sharp script, and attentive direction make this a very creative, memorable, and engaging film.