With their explicit violence and sexual content, the films of Paul Verhoeven often court controversy. Elle, the Dutch director’s latest (his first feature in a decade) is no different – a brazenly controversial rape/revenge drama that satirises, shocks and deconstructs in equal measure.
The premise alone will prove too high a hurdle for some, but the brilliance of Elle is in the psychological complexity of its astonishing central character. Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle, the owner of a successful videogame development studio. The film opens in the dark, with screams, as she is raped by an intruder wearing a ski mask. Rather than break down, or even call the police, Michèle calmly gets up, cleans the broken glass off the floor and takes a bath. The natural assumption is that Michèle is the victim of an unspeakably horrible crime, but she never behaves like a victim is expected to and the ambiguity of whether this act of sexual violence was in some way consensual comes into question as the intruder threatens to strike again.
Michèle is also the daughter of an infamous serial killer who recently returned to headlines after failing to make parole. With Michèle present for the killings many believe she was involved and, as a result, she’s still subjected to verbal and physical attacks by complete strangers some 40 years later. The truth, again, is a little ambiguous. This, along with her acerbic relationships with friends and family and the sexually aggressive game she’s developing, all feed into the mystery of who exactly Michèle’s mystery attacker is, and the perverse world she inhabits.
Almost certainly too controversial to be lauded with any major prizes at Cannes, Elle is a scintillatingly challenging watch from the 77-year-old Verhoeven, and his best since Starship Troopers. Such a sensitive subject matter being handled in such a distasteful and disrespectful manner should (and probably will) provoke outrage, but it’s a film of such nuanced complexity, deconstructing the rape/revenge genre and never doing what’s expected, that you can’t help but admire what Verhoeven has achieved.
The film’s perversity also extends to its abyssal black comedy. It’s frequently laugh out loud funny, despite the ultra-serious subject matter. The delightfully absurd supporting cast includes a pair of catholic neighbours (Verhoeven doesn’t pass up the opportunity for some anti-clerical snipes), Michèle’s best friend and her husband (who she’s having an affair with), Michèle’s bothersome mother and her toyboy, and Michèle’s son, who’s just had a child that clearly isn’t his. Their darkly comic interrelations come to a head in a riotously bitchy dinner party scene.
While resolutely continental in its outlook, and characters’ attitudes, Elle is a film that’s firmly of a piece with Verhoeven’s late 80s/early 90s Hollywood output. It’s a genre send-up pushed to extremes, much like Starship Troopers. While never titillating like Basic Instinct, it is sexually charged. And RoboCop’s satire of contemporary media is replicated here in its depiction of certain subsections of the videogame industry as, essentially, teenage boys’ wet dreams. It’s not subtle, but it’s effective. When we first see Michèle at work, evaluating a cutscene where a character is violated by an orc, her only comment is “the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid” - an alarmingly twisted statement to make mere hours after being sexually assaulted.
For all Verhoeven’s fine work though, it’s a film that lives or dies on Isabelle Huppert’s performance, and she’s stellar in the central role. A cooly dispassionate and unwaveringly amoral creature, she’s a character of such astonishing complexity you rarely have any idea what she’s thinking or why she’s doing what she’s doing, which makes her, and the film, thrillingly unpredictable and endlessly fascinating.