Ok. Dark, twisty, and subversive. Has tonal similarities to Nocturnal Animals as well as Sex Lies and Videotape.
It starts dark, suspenseful, and confounding, and makes its way into being funny. There’s a certain type of humor that emerges when you’re in a dark place and go a few levels darker - the brain seems to treat it as absurd.
That’s the case with Elle.
We meet her as a rape victim, and project feelings of sympathy and support her way. We realize she’s not only tremendously strong and strong willed, but also a bit of a cold monster herself who - turns out - is turned on by the rape.
Each character is despicable and tends to inflict pain on each person around them. They’re all selfish and vindictive in an nihilistic sort of way. The main suspension of disbelief for Elle is that the characters could exist and that they’d spend time with each other. Most of their time is spent in explicit conflict with each other.
They all have dark, hidden, agendas that become that much darker once their revealed and - the twist for the audience - nothing changes.
We’re forced to challenge our expectations about human decency and the role of morality as presented in film, generally.
Paul Verhoeven here doesn’t so much show that being a good person helps or hurts, simply that life is full of random pain so what’s the point of being good?
The rapist does indeed get his come uppance, but not at the hand of his victim, at least not intentionally. His victim becomes a willing partner in the sexual deviance. Her son takes on the role, perhaps or society, of saying ‘this is not ok even if you like it.’
It’s a rabbit hole of darkness that gets so dark it’s funny. I actually prefer it to more self aware black comedies.
The lynch pin of it all is the lead - actress Isabelle Hubert. She manages to somehow come off humorous, likable, and charismatic while absorbing and shelling out psychological slaps across the face for the duration of the film.
Elle really explores the idea of victim and good and bad - ultimately that we’re all victims, maybe as a result of and because of the fact that we’re all monsters too.
We often see stories where the victim is righteous and the villain is not - here everyone is at fault and is a victim as well. A fun perspective, told through a tone that balances comedy and drama well.
Perhaps we’re all victims and the result is we become predators, thus perpetuating the cycle. And in Elle it’s a vicious one, that’s a ton of fun to watch.