Paul Verhoeven is as much an intellectual prankster as a filmmaker. Now that he’s abandoned Hollywood to work exclusively in Europe, the provocateur seems as dedicated to upsetting viewers as entertaining them. He deliberately courts controversy, always in a playful way, kind of like a giddy schoolboy who knows he’s up to no good. His latest film, ‘Elle’, is the director’s take on the rape/revenge genre. As you’d imagine, it’s pretty rough stuff, but is always compelling and quite often unexpectedly funny.
The movie opens immediately following a rape, just to ensure that everyone in the audience is deeply uncomfortable from Frame One. The victim is Michele (Isabelle Huppert). She calmly cleans herself and the crime scene, then doesn’t bother with the police. Instead, she merely goes about her life, working on developing a sexually violent project for a videogame company, verbally battling with her not-so-bright son and oddly sex-obsessed mother, engaging in an affair, hosting dinner parties, and various other unexpected activities. Though she never reports the rape, she continues to fantasize about it and question who might be responsible. Oh, and she’s also the daughter of a convicted serial killer in the midst of a media revival as his parole hearing nears. It’s a tough time for Michele, to say the least.
The movie bounces between being a dirty little thriller, a complex character study, and a bitter black comedy often within the same scene. Verhoeven masterfully handles the suspense, keeping the identity of the rapist and the details of the old mass murder just out of reach until absolutely necessary. Huppert proves to be absolutely extraordinary in the lead role, never quite letting the audience into her head and remaining a strange mystery in a morally oblique space. The movie pokes and prods audiences, daring them to object or be offended. It could easily be written off as gross misogynist fantasy or engaged with as a disturbing psychological profile of a disturbed woman impossible to pin down. It’s almost left as the viewer’s choice in that regard, and clearly Verhoeven is elated to dance in that gray zone.
‘Elle’ plays as a mixture of intellectual entertainment and base level dirty thrills. It’s a curious concoction that’s neither clearly one nor the other, and that’s the playfulness that Verhoeven has built his entire career around. He’s well aware that, now more than ever, this material is incendiary and refuses to offer his audience any easy outs, giggling between the shocks and deep moral questions as viewers are put through an emotional rollercoaster. Huppert offers a superb sparring partner in that regard, playing a complex character with the sensitivity required and freely diving into sequences most actresses might fear. She provides a strong, unsettling dramatic force to ground a movie made by a cinematic prankster having a little too much fun with disturbing material. Together, they deliver a movie that is sure to be one of the most discussed and divisive of the year amongst cinephiles. It’s designed to be both loved and loathed. Verhoeven wouldn’t want it any other way.