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France picks rape-revenge thriller ‘Elle’ for Oscar bid

© SBS Distribution | Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and French actress Isabelle Huppert during the shooting of "Elle".

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-09-26

France’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar race this year will be Paul Verhoeven’s dark comedy “Elle”, which the veteran Dutch provocateur has described as too “amoral” for American actresses.

A kick in the gut, as compelling as it is disturbing, Verhoeven’s French-language debut is a riveting thriller about a ruthless business executive’s outlandish revenge after she is attacked by a masked man at her home. It proved a hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it landed the director’s first competition entry since erotic thriller “Basic Instinct” back in 1992.

An imperious Isabelle Huppert stars as Michelle, the unlikely head of a video game company that produces ultra-violent, heavily eroticised entertainment. After she is chillingly raped in the film’s opening scene, Michelle sets about unmasking her assailant and seeking justice for herself (without going to the police), to the bewilderment of friends and family.

“Elle”, based on acclaimed novel “Oh...” by Philippe Djian, shifts effortlessly between horror, perversion and hilarious satire, flirting dangerously with the notion that rape victims might draw some kind of twisted thrill from their ordeal. It works because Michelle’s character is so uniquely enigmatic and ambiguous, carried by an extraordinary Huppert.

At a press conference in Cannes, the veteran actress dismissed the idea that some viewers might find the film offensive, or that her character actually falls for her rapist after she is brutally attacked. “You don’t know exactly what she thinks or what she is,” she said. “She’s not an object. She’s not suffering what is imposed on her. She wants to control the situation.”

Huppert added: “The story shouldn’t be seen as a realistic story. It’s not a statement about women being raped. Philippe’s book and Paul’s film have to be taken like a tale or a fantasy, something inside yourself, you couldn’t confess in your inner thoughts. Paul projects it on screen. It doesn’t happen to all women. This is a particular story about this woman as an individual, not women in general.”

A rape-revenge thriller infused with dark humour, in which the victim stalks her stalker back, sounds right up Huppert’s street, and it is hard to imagine the film having such insidious potency without her. And yet that is what Verhoeven initially had in mind.

The Dutch director, who has made films in both the US and Europe, had planned to make the film in the US but found that “no American actress would take on such an amoral movie”. Then Huppert showed up and the production moved to France. “Isabelle made it French,” Verhoeven said in Cannes. “Paris and France gave me Isabelle. She could only exist in France.”

To the dismay of film critics, “Elle” left the French Riviera empty-handed, despite Huppert being a hot favourite for the Best Actress prize. It may well prove too “amoral” for the Academy Awards, where France hasn't won the foreign-language award since 1993 with Régis Wargnier’s “Indochine”.

Date created : 2016-09-26

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