This proved to be quite a disappointment. I’ve been a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven’s films in the past (although I never watched Showgirls) but this one just left me cold. Strangely, it was widely praised by critics with great reviews, so much so I wonder if I completely missed something.
My issue with the film was its wholly unrealistic characters and character behaviour. I just couldn’t get a grip of any of them- eccentricity is one thing, but this was something else, almost a bunch of loons with madly implausible histories etc. I should have realised it wasn’t for me from the start. The film opens with Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped in her home by an attacker whose face is hidden by a ski mask. Once the attacker is finished with her and leaves, Michèle recovers and cleans her apartment of the mess and breakages from the assault, evidently of a mind not to call the police. Later, she casually tells some freinds at a meal that she was raped. She seems distant, almost casual about it.
She won’t contact the police because her father was a mass murderer who, when she was ten, went through their street killing neighbours and their children- I believe 27 in all. Whoa, I’m thinking, there goes any credibility, this thing’s moving into some other place here. I don’t know what I was expecting Elle to be – an arthouse Deathwish/ Kill Bill, maybe, I don’t know. But at least some serious film about a woman dealing with being the victim of violence and feeling empowered to do something about it. In a way, this is that film, but it just goes nuts doing it. I mean, people thought Basic Instinct was daft OTT nonsense but this is something else.
Michèle has not seen her father since he was put in prison some 39 years ago, much to her mother’s disappointment, but when her mother dies and her father fails at his latest parole hearing, Michèle relents and decides to see him. When she arrives she discovers that her father has killed himself in his cell, presumably because he had been told she was finally going to visit. She sees his corpse and mutters something along the lines of “I killed you at last!” Its nuts.
Eventually Michèle discovers the identity of her assailant -after he returns and attempts to rape her again- and then she goes to his home and has violent sex with him in his basement. Indeed, she even continues some kind of relationship/affair with him behind the back of his wife, a woman she considers a friend. Meanwhile, she is also having an affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner, Anna. When she later admits to Anna what is going on, Anna is at first enraged but later suggests she move in with Michèle and resume their friendship now that Robert has left them both. The wife of the rapist, who is devoutly Catholic, eventually discovers what her husband has been doing and apologises to Michèle, suggesting she was well aware of her husbands twisted desires and proclivities and was fine with it as long as she wasn’t on the receiving end.
Now, you’re either reading this thinking, ‘hey thats so weird it sounds like it might be good’, or like me, you’re thinking, ‘what a load of mad shite’. In some ways its so up its own arse with some kind of sophisticated study of gender roles and what women are in society that maybe I have indeed missed the whole point of it. I just found it impossible to take its totally far-fetched characters and character histories/behaviours seriously- it was almost stretching over into farce. There was always something self-knowing and tongue-in-cheek about the sensationalist aspects of Basic Instinct, like a HItchcock film on steroids or something, but Elle tries to dress everything up as normal and humdrum, no matter how bizarre things get. If this is all normal for people living in France, well, no offence, but I’m staying this side of the Channel.
I haven’t even mentioned that Michèle’s mother is having an affair with a man likely fifty years her junior, or that Michèle’s ex-husband, a writer, is in a relationship with a younger woman who it turns out has mistaken him for some other author and promptly dumps him when she realises. Nor have I mentioned Michèle’s son, an ex-drug dealer who is in a relationship that Michèle disapproves of, and who is clearly not the father of the child that his girlfriend gives birth to. Or the fact that Michèle and her friend Anna own a videogame studio. Where does the madness end?
Only at the closing titles, my friend. Only at the closing titles.