A Polarizing Protagonist in "Elle"

Photo from the film "Elle" starring Isabelle Huppert courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

French actress Isabelle Huppert is taking the awards circuit by storm, thanks to her daring portrayal of a complicated woman in the provocative film “Elle.” She took home a Spirit award at Film Independent’s party, France’s Cesar award, and a Golden Globe award last month. Though the Paul Verhoeven film is not nominated for an Academy Award, Huppert is. An upset Sunday over the American actresses, who did not star in a French-language film featuring terrifying sexual assault scenes, is probably unlikely. But the nomination has people contemplating the role the put Huppert in the company of Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Ruth Negga.

“Elle” is less controversial than it is polarizing. Huppert portrays a woman, Michele, who runs a video game company. Think: high testosterone, violent, misogynistic, graphic. And then make it worse. She is violently attacked by a masked intruder. But how she reacts to that, and the course of action she takes to track down the identity of her intruder, have a lot of people scratching their heads. You don't have to like the film but you can’t deny that her character is anything short of complicated, complex, and unpredictable. You cannot predict what she will do or say next. Whether you agree with her reaction, and subsequent course of action, you have to appreciate how she keeps us guessing. Despite the tough subject matter and uncomfortably unflinching way it’s portrayed on the screen, it’s actually refreshing to follow a character – to actually have to follow the character – to see where she’s going rather than already knowing. That unpredictability and her complexities that fuel it are what make “Elle” and Huppert so engaging.

Some people complain that Michele’s reactions and actions are just not realistic, not believable. There’s nothing wrong with making that argument. It made me realize how easy it is to project our own thoughts, feelings, experiences and expectations onto a character. I wouldn’t do that, so therefore it’s not realistic, not believable. Or can we allow for complexities that cannot be easily explained? “Elle” teaches us that it is possible to write a strong female character – or any character for that matter – that doesn’t do what’s expected.