Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Opens November 11
Michele Leblanc doesn’t cry after she’s raped by a masked intruder in the opening scene of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. She doesn’t scream either, nor does she call the police, or phone a friend. She simply picks herself up, dusts herself off, and calmly sweeps up the glass that’s been shattered in the wake of this particularly heinous act of violence, as a trickle of blood runs down the inside of her thigh. It’s the first of many actions that defy what might be considered typical—even “appropriate”—behavior for a woman who’s just been through a sexual assault, but this is not a film that’s remotely interested in upholding standards of social or narrative decorum. It’s hardly a surprise that the long-awaited return from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls would be designed as a provocation, but Elle finds Verhoeven more gleefully self-aware, more triumphant with moral ambiguity than ever before. At once a perverse psycho-sexual thriller and a venomous comedy of manners, Elle boldly wears its contractions on its sleeve—and due to the beyond brilliant performance from Isabelle Huppert, actually manages to pull them all off.
The film quickly establishes a tone that’s as deeply foreboding as it is deliciously campy: the string-heavy score recalls erotic thrillers of yore, while the cool renderings of bourgeois interiors feel reminiscent of Claude Chabrol. For a movie that begins as a whodunit, Michele’s assailant is unmasked relatively quickly, a narrative move that allows Elle to evolve into something much more darkly complex as she becomes increasingly complicit in the repeated attacks.
In spite of a number of story elements that should feel overwrought—Michele’s mother, for example, is something of a caricatured old, rich lady who pays to bed younger men, and it’s later revealed that her father is serving a life sentence for the mass murder he committed when she was just a child—the overall takeaway is one of palpable control. Verhoeven’s steady directorial hand can certainly be felt throughout this twisted journey, but it’s Huppert who’s steering the ship here, her every movement and subtle inflection imbuing her character with far more agency than the words on the page could ever suggest.
Michele doesn’t tell anyone she’s been raped until days after the fact, casually bringing it up over dinner with friends just as the waiter is about to pop the cork on a bottle of wine. “Shall we order?” she says, changing the subject when her dinner companions criticize her for not reporting the incident. It’s certainly true that she doesn’t appear to be all that ruffled by the events: she maintains her composure at work, where she’s the CEO of a successful gaming company, and manages to keep up a series of precarious relationships. In addition to her mother, she’s constantly bolstering the egos of her dim-witted son, her ex-husband—a mediocre writer—and her purely functional lover (who happens to be married to her best-friend and business partner). Finally, there’s her handsome new neighbor who seems to provide a much needed reprieve from this selection of incompetent males—not to mention easily accessible masturbation material for Michele, who gets off watching him set up a Nativity display outside her window.
One of the film’s most satisfying (and most hilarious) scenes occurs when all of these characters are brought together under one roof at a rather chic Christmas fete Michele hosts. A carefully curated collection of current, ex, and future lovers—and all of their significant others—along with her mother, son, illegitimate grandchild, and her mother’s hired stud, it’s incredibly uncomfortable for everyone but Michele, who clearly has a sadistic streak to match her masochistic one. Enviably poised at the head of the table, she watches everyone squirm in their seats as the evening unfolds (almost) exactly as she’s designed it.
The same might be said for the film itself, which makes a strong case for the actor as director within any given scene. Whether Elle is a stylish exercise in exploitative misogyny or a powerful subversion of female victimization is ultimately up for debate—Verhoeven has designed it that way—but the extent to which Huppert reigns supreme over the male-generated material is undeniable (the director is working from the novel Oh… by Philippe Dijan and a screenplay by David Birke). Any time you laugh, feel pain, or shift in discomfort it’s because she wants you to.