“Elle” begins at the end of a rape: Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), an intense fiftysomething businesswoman, attacked in her home by a masked assailant. Though traumatized (she replays it in her head, sometimes imagining that she successfully fought off the rapist), she tries to be nonchalant when telling her best friend and business partner, Anna (Anna Consigny), and Anna’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel) … with whom Michele is having a casual affair. She won’t tell the police, having mistrusted them since childhood.
The business she and Anna own is a software company that makes distinctly un-feminist video games, one of many ironies in this piercing and uncomfortably humorous dissection of the power struggle between the sexes. She wonders if one of her employees might be the culprit – especially when she starts getting text messages from him.
Based on Philippe Dijan’s novel “Oh…,” the film was directed by Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”), no stranger to stories about the complicated intersection of sex and violence. But unlike his more exploitative and over-the-top works, “Elle” is audacious and savvy, carried by Huppert’s champion performance as a strong, imperious, and vulnerable woman whose complex response to her attack will raise eyebrows. (A key line: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to prevent us from doing anything.”) Remarkably, though we may not understand or identify with everything Michele does, Huppert plays her so authentically that her actions never strike us as implausible.
B+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; French with subtitles; )