Few internationally revered filmmakers seem to enjoy naughty provocation quite as much as Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch auteur hasn’t worked quite as much since he left Hollywood and returned to Europe, but when he does, fans can expect a truly nasty treat. His latest feature, ‘Elle’, can only be described as a thoughtful rape/revenge comedy. How is that possible, you ask? Only Verhoeven has the answer with this dirty little cinematic ditty.
The movie opens with its protagonist, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), being raped by a masked man as a cat looks on in stony silence. Verhoeven makes it clear that we’re going to dark places early on and doesn’t flinch. After the assailant leaves, Michèle stands, brushes herself off, cleans up the mess and continues her day like nothing happened. She goes to her job at a videogame company supervising a sexually violent game. She berates her bonehead son for his sad relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. She visits her mother and meets her latest gigolo boyfriend. She dodges her ex-husband’s attempts to sell a ridiculous cyborg dog videogame. She hosts parties, sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and even has some dark fantasies about her assault. Obviously, she’s not your average victim.
While Verhoeven is no stranger to hyper-stylized erotic thrillers, he plays a different game here. Though the film still bears his distinct aesthetic, handheld cameras and chilly naturalism are the name of the game this time. It’s all one grand dark joke, played deathly straight. Countless Euro art films have shown acts of violence and violation met with cold indifference as a fact of life, but never with the deadpan thrust of ‘Elle’. There’s sick humor in the way Michèle pockets her trauma, and the more we learn of the character the clearer it becomes that she’s far from a victim. Her father is a convicted murderer and her childhood involvement in the crime is unclear. She shows little love to friends and coworkers, delighting more in manipulation and betrayal. She fantasizes about the crime that was committed on her. She’s a sociopath. It just takes a little time to see it.
Huppert is absolutely remarkable in the role. She’s a quiet force marching through scenes and dominating all the other characters. She’s in nearly every frame of the film, yet keeps viewers at arm’s length. It’s never entirely clear what’s going on in Michèle’s head and when we do get glimpses, they’re often misdirects. The actress takes every challenge the perpetually perverse Verhoeven throws her way and matches it with a mastery of craft that commands the screen. Her character is almost a feminist antihero, blurring the lines between audience empathy and horror. It’s a fascinating character impossible to tear your eyes from, and while it might be difficult for any viewer to claim to know or understand the woman by the time the credits roll, it’s clear that Huppert knows exactly what she’s doing and thinking at all times. She’s just wise enough not to show all her cards, creating an infinitely more enigmatic character in the process. There’s a chance that not even Verhoeven knew everything that his actress had in mind, and that was part of the game they played together.
Bouncing between thriller, social satire, gender commentary, nasty realism, and heightened cinema, ‘Elle’ is a difficult film to pin down. It’s filled with diversions into subplots that enrich themes more than narrative, fascinating characters who disappear at will, shocking set-pieces impossible to shake, and mysteries that remain tantalizingly out of reach. What links it all together is Verhoeven’s morbid wit and Huppert’s enigmatic talents. They dance through many ideas and scenarios, teasing and toying with viewers.
The film is designed to provoke and shock, but not just for empty thrills. The movie has layers to peel back and will reward multiple viewings. It’s worth the effort for those who can stomach it, or at least share a sense of humor bleak enough to realize that, ultimately, Verhoeven intends this brutal tale to be taken as good fun. It’s a sick joke, but one executed well enough to be art.