Among the many controversial films of 2016, Elle was surely one of the most debated. Nonetheless, it vaulted from its once-relegated fate of being a little-seen art house provocation into the national Oscar conversation on Jan. 8, when it pulled off an upset triumph as Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards.
Moments later its star, Isabelle Huppert, walked to the podium to pick up her own award, besting a formidable list of contenders for Best Actress, including co-favorites Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Amy Adams (Arrival).
"I'm a bit amazed because my movie doesn't really invite you to sympathize with the character [portrayed by Huppert]," said director Paul Verhoeven in accepting the Best Foreign Film prize. "The lead character goes in directions that you might not take."
It is no exaggeration to suggest moviegoers brace themselves before settling in to see Elle, which opens in Boise on Friday, Jan. 13. The debate over the French-language film's exploitations or merits spilled out into the theater lobby after its screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and film buffs and critics alike argued about it for days after—even while lining up to see other films.
The opening scenes of Elle depict the broad-daylight rape of Michele (Huppert) by a masked intruder. What follows is also uncomfortable: Michele tidies up her home (the scene of her rape), orders some sushi and goes on with the business of the rest of her day.
Michele is an assertive head of a thriving video game company, where she is surrounded by a collection of male employees who either resent her success or are infatuated with her. Adding to the mix is Michele's mother, who is obsessed with younger men. Then there's Michele's sheepish son, who is bullied by his girlfriend. Finally, we're asked to consider Michele's own sexual liaisons with married men.
Tangled into this psycho-sexual knot is the dilemma that Michele is the daughter of a serial killer whose parole is soon approaching.
Elle asks its audience to keep all of that in mind while knowing Michele manages a company that makes a tidy profit from misogynistic video games—taken together, it's a compendium of themes: some offensive, many disturbing, but all ripe for drama.
Director Verhoeven has enjoyed critical, popular and even cult successes (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), but he's also the man who made one of the most misogynistic films in recent memory: Showgirls, which was "honored' by the Golden Raspberry Awards as 1995's Worst Picture (Verhoeven stunned the snarky ceremony when he showed up in person to accept the Worst Director award).
Even though controversy surrounds Elle (Verhoeven's first French film), its provocation alone does not make it a must-see award contender. That honor begins and ends with Huppert's Oscar-caliber performance.
As an audience, we are instantly repelled by her sexual assault. Yet, as Michele contemplates her own brand of vengeance, Elle takes an awkward path into dark comedy.
At the TIFF screening in September 2016, some audience members whispered to one another, "Is this supposed to be a comedy? After a rape?" Minutes later, that question was answered as some uncomfortable but soft chuckles emitted from the audience. Truly, there are some outright laughs in Elle. At the film's conclusion, when the lights came up on an audience at TIFF that had been appalled, amused and thoroughly engaged, a major question still loomed: Is Elle a tale of empowerment or simply another provocation from Verhoeven?
It will be up to audiences to answer that question, even as it is now beyond debate that Elle is an awards season contender.
A note of Gem State trivia: Huppert spent a fair amount of time in Idaho during the filming of Heaven's Gate in 1979, considered by many to be among the greatest failures in film history.
The four hour-plus Western epic, featuring big-name actors such as Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt and Sam Waterston alongside Huppert, was shot extensively in Wallace, Idaho, and its box office disaster ultimately caused its parent studio, United Artists, to financially collapse. Huppert has different thoughts about it, though: In an interview in November 2016, she told the Hollywood Reporter the controversial film was "inspired."
Time can benefit a controversial film and readjust its place in history—and even the social conscience. Decades from now, audiences and critics may consider Elle to be "inspired," to say the very least.