Screening as the Centerpiece Gala in conjunction with AFI FEST 2016’s Tribute to acclaimed international actress, Isabelle Huppert, “Elle” launches to wider audiences on Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York. But will general audiences be ready for Paul Verhoeven’s latest erotic thriller that has already heralded controversial discussions post-Cannes and Toronto film festivals? Can viewers look beyond the film’s opening assault to witness Huppert’s tour de force performance? One can only hope.

‘Elle’ as an arthouse erotic thriller

The film follows Michele (Huppert), the head of a popular video game company after a brutal attack. Although Michele continues to successfully manage her personal and professional life as if nothing happened, certain events trigger the complexities in her psyche. Navigating a horrific past with a man-starved mother and a naïve son on the verge of fatherhood, Michele’s life is further complicated by sexist and resentful employees, exes, and neighbors. And then there’s the rape, Michele so carefully compartmentalized. Or did she? Let the sex games begin.

Director Verhoeven’s return to sexually provocative filmmaking

Paul Verhoeven has long embraced themes of eroticism and violence and his latest film continues the trend. Known for provocative and controversial storytelling – “Robocop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” and “Starship Troopers,” Verhoeven at times is brilliant and at times ridiculously over the top. But with “Elle” Verhoeven has created edgy fare laced with humor, violence, and sexual ambiguity.

He knows how to keep his audience enticed. Even at moments when scenes veer to the absurd, the director reigns in expectations only to spin them out in a different direction. In the film's production notes Verhoeven gleefully states that Huppert’s reaction upon seeing the film was that “The most interesting aspect [of the movie] is the perpetual ambiguity.”

Verhoeven’s decision to return the story to France

Although based on the French novel “Oh…” by Philippe Dijian, director Verhoeven and producer Said Ben Said initially wanted the film to be set in America.

But when they continuously met with resistance from American actresses over the controversial rape scene, producer and director decided to return the setting to France. They even returned to Huppert who had long been interested in the part.

Will Isabelle Huppert finally receive an Oscar nomination?

Isabelle Huppert has been nominated fifteen times for the Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards), but has yet to receive an Academy Award nomination.

That could all change in 2017 as Academy voters reflect on this year’s Best Actress race. Although controversial in the Verhoevenian terms of sex and violence, “Elle” is nothing without the strong, skillfully alluring screen presence of Huppert.

Acting in nearly every scene, Huppert’s Michel is a complex modern woman. Even when cold and calculating, she is authentic. In the film’s production notes, Huppert discusses her character Michele: “She is many and varied: cynical, generous, endearing, cold, commendable, independent, dependent, perspicacious.

She is anything but sentimental; she is pummeled by events but she doesn’t crack.” Huppert’s Michele is a character who will long be remembered, as Huppert deserves to be come Oscar time.

“Elle” is 131 minutes, Rated R and in French with English subtitles.

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