Elle is a fascinating film about a businesswoman who decides to track down the man who raped her. I think the movie, due to its rather extreme content, could have easily gone off the rails but it does not thanks to the central performance, an intelligent screenplay and Paul Varhoeven's direction that makes the film both a compelling, tense thriller but also a complex character study. A nomination for Best Foreign Picture wouldn't have been undeserved I think.
Michèle Leblanc is an extremely hard character to pull off: her actions are often quite difficult to understand, her behavior is most of the time far from endearing and it does not have any big, revelatory moment in which the character reveals the movitations behind what she does. Thankfully, the actress playing the role is no less than Isabelle Huppert, a terrific actress of great elegance and intelligence who delves so well into this woman's complicated psyche. The film opens with Michèle being raped by a masked man inside her house (a scene that is shown multiple times during the movie): Huppert is fantastic in this scene as she portrays so realistically and brutally the horror of this moment that you just want to look away. But she's even better in the following moments as she immediately pulls herself together, calmly cleans up the mess, has a bath to wash the blood away and only a few days later she nonchalantly tells her friends that she had been assaulted and raped in her house: those scenes could have been hard to sell but they work because Huppert establishes so well Michèle as a woman who does not face trauma but rather tries to bury it inside her - this trait of her explains her calm behavior throughout the whole movie but Huppert never simplifies this and instead shows what's going on behind Michèle's surface even though she never has any moment in which this façade falls down. It's through her body language and the small reactions in the space between words that Huppert conveys the underlying turmoil in Michèle's life. With admirable restraint, Huppert manages to conveys the bruised soul behind her ice queen exterior, and in doing this she makes Michèle like a ticking bomb - she makes you feel the tense of the situation in every second and therefore keeps you so utterly engaged from start to finish.
The movie does not just focus on Michèle's plot for revenge, but also on the various relationship between Michèle and the most important people in her life. Isabelle Huppert is consistently terrific in those scenes because on one hand she always does an excellent job at portraying Michèle's detatched, cold demeanor but on the other hand she finds small variations within that behavior, showing the differences in her interactions with the people around her. I really like the scenes between Michèle and her mother (played by Judith Magre) - the two actresses are great at showing that there is a certain degree of love between them but also an inability to truly communicate, due to Michèle's disapproval of her mother's sexually promiscuous behavior and her mother's disdain for Michèle's glacial treatment of everyone around her. There is a terrific scene midway through the movie in which her mother announces that she's marrying a man much younger than she is - Michèle's contemptuous laugh is brilliantly nailed by Huppert. Huppert is also very good in her scenes with Jonas Bloquet, who plays Vincent, Michèle's son - again, Huppert is very good at showing the genuine love Michèle feels for her son but also a certain feeling of disappointment due to his extreme naivety. In particular though I love her scenes with Charles Berling, as Michèle's ex-husband Richard, and Anne Consigny, as her best friend and colleague Anna: Huppert is fantastic in her scenes with the former at portraying a certain regret for how their marriage turned out and in their few moments together she sometimes shows an unexpected, poignant tenderness; in her scenes with the latter, Huppert is excellent at portraying the sincere affection she feels for her friend in spite of the fact that she sleeps with Anna's husband out of boredom. And then there is her chemistry with Laurent Lafitte, who plays Michèle's charming neighbour Patrick: the two are great in their scenes together as they show with effective subtlety the growing attraction between the two of them.
It is revealed that Michèle's father was a mass murdered and that Michèle, who was only a child, was wrongly targeted by the press for it - Huppert does a brilliant job at slowly revealing how much this trauma still affects Michèle to the present days. There is a brilliant monologue in which Michèle opens up to Patrick about this - it's a very quiet monologue, not anything too showy or dramatic, but Huppert is incredible in it as she shows so well the pain that has never left her since what happened. *Spoiler* At one point in the movie Michéle decides to visit her father in prison for the first time after his arrest, only to find out that he committed suicide: her stone-faced reaction and her venomous delivery of "I killed you by coming here" are absolute brilliance. *Spoiler Off*
But the main plot is of course the one involving her search for the man who raped her: Huppert is terrific at portraying her growing paranoia but also her character's great intelligence as she tries to figure out a way to discover his identity. Her performance is calculated in the best way possible as Michèle is a woman who is constantly planning a new strategy: again, thanks to her approach she makes the movie incredibly compelling and absorbing. *Spoiler* At one point Michèle finally finds out that the rapist is actually Patrick and after a moment of confusion the two embark on a twisted, violent relationship: this is where the movie could have easily felt absurd but it does not because Huppert does such a brilliant job at showing her character's damaged psyche that it all works incredibly well. Her eventual realization of the disturbing nature of their relationship could have felt rushed but Huppert pulls it off perfectly: her delivery of "I was in a kind of weird denial but I see clearly now. You don't expect to get away with what you did to me?" is brilliantly handled by Huppert who completely earns this moment and packs the needed punch the scene needs. Her facial reactions during the movie's climax are also absolute perfection and they are at turns strangely satisfying and incredibly terrifying. The ending of the movie is surprisingly low-key, but Huppert is excellent at suggesting that Michèle might find a way to be a little more happy in the future and her final scene with Consigny makes for a surprisingly heartwarming finale. *Spoiler Off*
Overall, this is a fantastic performance from Isabelle Huppert who takes what could have been a one-note role and turns into a brilliant, complex and layered creation. She gets under the character's skin and brings to it a welcome amount of elegance and class, while also managing to make her sympathetic and understandable even when she technically is not. This is simply a phenomenal turn from a gorgeous actress.