Guest Review: ELLE (2016)


Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Written By: David Birke
Runtime: 2 hrs 10 minutes

The women’s film genre covers the spectrum of feminine empowerment to absolute degradation and several can be read both ways. Elle (2016) is an ambivalent film that can be read as a tale of self-assertion or, equally valid, about victimhood, transgressive sexuality and gender disrespect. The story is framed against the violent porn video game industry where women are routinely sacrificed to male gratification and dominance. Porn video games normalise sexual assault and other forms of humiliation and this cyber reality merges with the Elle narrative on fantasy and victimhood.

Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful Parisian video game entrepreneur who leads a company of testosterone-fueled hipsters whose job it is to hyper-stimulate young males into doing things to women in video cyber-worlds. The film’s opening scenes are both disturbing and banal: Michelle appears to be violently raped by a masked intruder and then proceeds to tidy up the mess with barely more than an air of inconvenience. No, it is not a video game, and yes, it happens again as do several other normalised sexual transgressions. For example, when she discovers the staffer who pasted her face onto a video game assault victim she asks the person to expose his genitals in her office. Rather than an opportunity for reverse humiliation or worse, she only says “pretty” and walks off leaving us wondering if she is seriously cool or seriously damaged.


Divergent plotlines fill out the character of Michelle to explain the reasons for her impassivity. Her father is in prison for crimes against children and her mother pays for sex with younger men. She sleeps with her business partner’s husband and lusts for her neighbour, and compulsively tells lies in her twilight world between video game brutality and real-world morality. While appearing indestructible in her business life her emotional world is a fragile void that cannot be filled with normal relationships. The several scenes that dwell suggestively on her face oozing repressed sexual desire hint darkly of a deeply troubled soul.

This is a compelling film that examines the parallel universe of a woman who is both a perpetrator and a victim of sexual transgression and who lives under the guise of wealth and respectability. As such, it is also a portrait of hypocrisy and moral extremities with audience voyeurism forming the picture frame. Isabelle Huppert pushes this role to its limits while showing little emotion beyond what she can say with her expressive eyes. It is hard to judge a survivor like her, and we can only guess what keeps her head together. This film is one of many that push back the cultural envelope that has kept women’s sexuality on a pedestal.


cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘ELLE’? Well, what did you think? 

18 thoughts on “Guest Review: ELLE (2016)

  1. Hi Richard. Well, since you are a guest reviewer of ‘Elle’ here on Ruth’s blog, I will forgo posting this review on mine. Ha! Ruth and I have similar followers. Her site is a proper moviebuff blog.

  2. Amazing review. It blends genres (bit of Hitchcock and even Woody Allen and British black comedy at times) and pushes so many envelopes. This film was difficult to watch at times, but raises very important issues to the forefront.

    1. You are right about the genre blending (or bending). There is a distinct psychological thriller strand throughout the film that is woven around sexual deviance or liberation, depending on your viewpoint. A good test for whether a film is pushing feminist polemic is to imagine a gender reversal. A male protagonist would make this a creepy sleeze film, but being a female protagonist makes it an exploration of liberated feminine sexuality. While the opening rape scene is disturbing, subsequent revelations about Michelle cause us to revisit that scene and wonder who she really is. The ambiguities of this film can tease you for ages.

      1. Definitely. I interpreted it as her feeling extremely emotionally detached from forming any true meaningful relationships secondary to her totally messed up childhood. A good film has answers but also leaves you with many questions, and this film did that for sure.

  3. Good read. This has notched up my expectation. It goes without saying that the director has enjoyed a career with both hits and misses but I’m eager to see this and hope it’ll be one of those Verhoeven films I can return to again and again.

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