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'Elle' is a strange, ineffectual Parisian thriller

“Elle” – Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a tough and talented business woman. She founded a video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), even though neither one appears particularly familiar with the industry. Their company sits in a beautiful, modern office in Paris, and business appears to be booming and probably due to their stewardship.

Gaming is her career, but a brutal incident occurred in her apartment that was no game. A masked intruder broke into Michele’s home and raped her, and director Paul Verhoeven pulls no punches in depicting the vicious assault. The nefarious scene plays more than once on the big screen, guarantees a deeply distressing few minutes and leaves a much longer burn after the end credits roll. What is also surprising, however, is Michele’s reaction to that doomed event, and she attempts to find her perpetrator in the most unexpected and seemingly casual manner.

Huppert’s brave performance has generated support and accolades at the beginning of awards season, including European Film Awards and Golden Globes nominations for Best Actress. Due to circumstances that I will not reveal, her character, Michele, does not turn to the police for help. Instead, she initiates an investigation of her own, and the script offers a few key suspects from both her work life and personal life in order to keep Michele and the audience guessing. Without professional law enforcement, Michele needs to fend for herself, and the film successfully places us in her uneasy shoes.

Michele quickly conveys that she is an incredibly busy woman and garners our sympathy. Besides running her own company, she also attempts to manage her inhibited mother (Judith Magre), her irresponsible 20-something son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and much, much more. Quite frankly, with all of her commitments, I am not sure how she has time to track down her assailant. In between delivering repeated, sound advice to Vincent (in vain, I may add), listening to her mom’s latest ideas and trying to meet difficult deadlines at work, she squeezes in some moments to practice her aim on the gun range and to ask her IT guy to hack into her employees’ electronic mailboxes for clues.

On the plus side, Huppert and Verhoeven probably paint a realistic picture of a modern woman who wears many hats and stretched terribly thin between a multitude of players. Conversely, due to the film’s nonchalance, it does not work as an effective thriller, but a meandering and exhausting walk through a few weeks (or perhaps months) in Michele’s life. Even though her search is her top priority, she compartmentalizes it in a way that just does not register as believable.

Many other characters don’t act in a believable way either. For example, her best friend’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), interacts with her in a particularly selfish manner, especially after knowing the trauma that she has been through, and Vincent constantly whines and carries on like a 12-year-old. Michele successfully juggles about five key relationships and her video game company as well, but while she oversees these dysfunctional moving parts, finding her rapist becomes lost in the narrative somewhere.

Although, figuring out the bad guy was not lost on me. Personally, I have a historically terrible track record at picking out the villain but had little trouble this time around. Perhaps it was a lucky guess, but I was more than happy to help, because Michele’s calendar seemed busy.

(2/4 stars)

Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics

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