The Movie Club

Elle’s ending left me baffled.

What in the hell are we supposed to make of the ending of Elle?

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

Sony Pictures Classics

Hi all,

That last round provided a lot of potential paths to go down. Amy’s questions about rewatchability—what is its relationship to quality? Why are good comedies generally easier to watch again than good dramas?—converge at an interesting angle with Mark’s and Bilge’s critical self-scrutiny about our tendency to neglect comedy when it comes time to talk about, rank, and hand shiny statuettes to the movies that Really Mattered. It’s so true that comedies that were recognized in their own time as mere pleasant diversions often age better than their more solemn, meaning-conveying counterparts. I predict The Edge of Seventeen, Kelly Fremon Craig’s precociously smart first feature, will take some time to be recognized as a cult classic—it’s like a John Hughes coming-of-age romp minus the racism, and with a more nuanced view of the teenage female psyche. And Bilge, I’m with you on Shane Black’s goofy buddy-cop sendup The Nice Guys, which, though it may not have the oak-barrel aging capacity of Craig’s debut, made me laugh enough to want to watch it twice, an unusual indulgence in our movie-besieged lives.

In general, though, when I rewatched a movie this year, it was less for pleasure than in an attempt at understanding. In no case was this truer than of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a movie I knew at once I had to watch again before writing on it, even as I recoiled at the prospect of re-enduring its more sadistic excesses. None of you listed Elle even among your top 20 of the year, so I don’t mean to gin up a pointless critical pile-on, but because I have you all assembled here, I must inquire, in a bad French accent: What ze ’ell? For the film’s first hour or more, Verhoeven (a director, for the record, whom I generally admire and occasionally adore) had me convinced I was watching the construction of some diabolically tricksy cat-and-mouse game in which Isabelle Huppert’s character, an emotionally remote video-game developer who’s raped by a masked stranger in the starkly shot opening scene, would turn the tables on her attacker.

(Spoilers begin here.) But after the attacker’s identity is revealed midway through, the point of all this elaborate trap-setting becomes strangely clouded. What, in the end, is Huppert’s Michele after in her seemingly suicidal multistage seduction of her own violent rapist? I understand human motivations can be multiple and disturbing and mutually contradictory, but can we at least get a glimpse of one legible goal to build on here? The movie’s meticulously plotted setup raises thorny and worthwhile questions about the ubiquity of rape culture and women’s self-destructive tendency to internalize the hatred that culture projects onto them. But by the end, when Michele’s dumb lug of a son shows up in the nick of time to bash the villain’s brain in with his trusty fireplace log, I knew I’d have to watch the film again just to convince myself that climactic scene hadn’t been meant as a dream sequence. All of that chin-scratching about trauma and survival and gender and revenge, and your resolution is really deus ex log? (End spoilers.)

One thing everyone who saw Elle agreed on: Whatever the movie was about, Huppert was fantastic in it. Many critics’ groups, including one I belong to, awarded Huppert a best actress award without according the film she appeared in any other recognition. The critic Miriam Bale, writing in the New Republic, liked Elle far more than I did, but I think she’s accurate in identifying Huppert’s performance as “a clear case of actress as auteur.” Without that tautly strung violin of a face as his instrument, Verhoeven (working from a script by David Birke adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel) could never have hit all the complex, discordant, and sometimes funny notes he often did. Though a second viewing of Elle only served to make me more impatient with the ending’s moral muddle, some of Huppert’s wicked microexpressions—like the faint glint of a smile as she daydreams about bashing her attacker’s skull in—have stayed with me all year.

What other cases of unlikely authorship did you witness at the movies? When did a performance (whether lead or supporting), an unusual camera choice, a cut of music on a soundtrack, or some other salient detail hijack your attention and make you want to find it a better film in which to live?

Complexly motivated, I remain,