To anyone increasingly frustrated by a lack of originality or who reckons cinema today is ‘too safe,’ Elle has you covered.  

Opening with the brutal home invasion and sexual assault of its title character (Isabelle Huppert), after her attacker leaves, the prolific gaming executive collects herself, has a bath, refuses to disclose what happened to her and, at least for a short while, goes about her regular life.

Elle is a lot of things, least of which a drama, that more than almost any other film in recent memory will suffer a disservice from attempts to box it into any category. Remissly described as a ‘rape-comedy,’ Elle does not treat its subject matter lightly, seizing on the themes of power and loss of it so evident in much darker, more explicit shockers; the reclamation of which, inevitably pursued by such a strong central character and the driving force of the narrative, is neither perfunctory, nor, interestingly, wholly purgative in a film hell-bent on upending genre norms and social conventions.

Foremost though not adequately delineated as a psychosocial thriller, Elle’s extremely dark comedic overtones noticeably hail from the absurdist, discomforting situational farces turned genre-fare with which modern audiences are ably familiar and which Director Paul Verhoeven has taken to a whole new level.

Best viewed with as little pre-knowledge as possible, Elle’s evidently novel premise naturally gives way to character interactions and plot evolutions hitherto unseen that would not be possible but for the risks Verhoeven takes with his story and star, the latter of which more than consummately carries the not so trivial machinations of the tale.

Bearing a slightly too heavy metaphor relating to her production of role-playing games, Elle is an enormously complex character that could easily be unpacked across repeat screenings. Like her titular moniker, Elle, presenting an identical face to the rest of the world, without due introspection will appear the same regardless from whichever side her contemporaries look at or interact with her, as with the multifarious backdrop of the film enduring an injustice through a mere surface-level engagement with its larger story.

Packing a darker sub-plot stretching back to Elle’s childhood, the more nefarious interpretation of which, preferred by this author and fairly inductive in light of so many of the film’s developments, is both the least derivative and most powerful of Verhoeven’s innovations. Proffering so much to the fans of cult characters and series like Dexter or Hannibal but devoid of the hamminess or passing abjectness that characterized so much of that output, Elle is as absorbing as it is open to wildly different explication, its third act more than any other foisting it’s singular character on interminably unsuspecting audiences.

Having created a very different type of film, Huppert and Verhoeven’s efforts will for more than a few cinema-goers merit multiple viewings.

Elle screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival – for tickets head to the Festival website