Paul Verhoeven, that perfect purveyor of perversity, has a magnificent career comprised of artful, lusty, violent, vulgar cinema. Films like RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and, of course, Showgirls. But with his new film Elle, Verhoeven crafts what might be his most elegant film to date. A twisty, twisted examination of a hard-to-pin-down individual, Elle may at first seem like another trashterpiece from the Dutch filmmaker, but hold on. There are more layers to Elle than meets the eye.
Elle gives its audience no warning to speak of, opening in the middle of a brutal sexual assault of its main character Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) by a masked intruder. Once the deed is done, the rapist flees and Michèle, curiously, cleans up and acts almost as if nothing happened. She has herself checked out by a doctor, and then goes about with her life. Later, when meeting with friends for dinner, so nonchalantly informs them, “I was raped, I suppose.” Her friends are shocked, and wonder why she didn’t report the attack to the police.
Michèle has her reasons. Her father is a notorious serial killer, now rotting away in prison. And there was always an air of suspicion about what role, if any, Michèle played in his horrendous crimes. Michèle’s excuse for not reporting the attack is to avoid being questioned, yet again in her life, by the police, and opening up her traumatic past in the process. But there’s more to it than that. And part of the wonder of Elle is watching where Verhoeven and Huppert take this unnerving story.
In her personal life, Michèle runs a company that makes sexually violent video games, where she must contend with an all-male staff much younger than she is. They scoff and whisper behind her back, and more than a few of them eye her as little more than a potential sexual conquest. It’s just one of the many ways the film illustrates how the men who surround Michèle are clueless, horny dolts.
As hypnotic and intriguing as Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (adapting the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian) craft Elle, it wouldn’t be half the movie it is without the simmering performance of Isabelle Huppert. Huppert plays Michèle like a puzzle no one can crack; mysterious and a little unhinged. There’s a complexity to the character that few dramas, and few actresses, could execute as well. Quite simply, it’s stunning to watch.
In the days following her rape, Huppert’s Michèle begins receiving taunting messages from her attacker, and it’s transfixing to watch how Huppert reacts to all of this, her jaw shut tight, her eyes alight — a pale fire somewhere inside. Michèle begins an investigation of her own to try to find her attacker, and has violent fantasies where he comes back and she gets the drop on him. But Elle is not a mystery, nor is it strictly a rape-revenge thriller. Just when you think you know where it’s going, the film veers off into a new, exciting direction.
Just as the storyline travels to unexpected territories, Verhoeven too, more known for over-the-top bombast and graphic explosions of violence, defies expectations — this is perhaps the most reserved, even quiet, film of his career. Yet the filmmaker is at the top of his game here, drawing the viewer in with grace and charm — which makes the more shocking moments of the film land with even more effect. And there is plenty of shock to Elle, but there’s a wicked, morbid sense of humor as well. The end result of it all is one of the year’s most absorbing films; the type of movie you’ll find yourself talking breathlessly about long after you’ve exited the theater.