Director Paul Verhoeven, that eternal Dutch wild child (even though he’s 78), delivers a perverse kick whether his films are terrific (Spetters, Robocop, Black Book) or just terrific trash (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers). His new surprise package, Elle, is a dark comedy about … rape. Like I said, the dude is a button pusher.
“No American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie,” Verhoeven has stated. So the great French actress Isabelle Huppert steps into the role of Michele Leblanc, the divorced CEO of a Paris-based video-game company that distributes medieval fantasies for gamers who like their digital entertainment as savage as it is erotic. Of course, Verhoeven, working from a devilishly depraved script that David Birke adapted from Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel Oh …, doesn’t tell us this right away. He opens his film in darkness as the camera slowly opens up to the light, revealing Michele being punched, beaten and sexually assaulted by a man in a ski-mask. No sooner does the rapist run from her tres chic apartment than the fiftysomething Michele reacts. No frantic calls to the police; she simply locks her door, cleans up the mess, cosmetically covers her bruises, and begins her day. Later, at dinner with friends, she offhandedly remarks, “I suppose I was raped.”
Cool customer? Not really. As the daughter of an imprisoned serial killer, Michelle replays the attack in her head as she develops her own revenge fantasy, imagining various men in the role of her attacker. The suspects range from her lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who’s married to Michele’s best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), to Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a neighbor with a hyper-religious wife, and Richard (Charles Berling), a failed novelist trying to get back into Michele’s bed. There’s also Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who happens to be Michele’s spineless son. It’s a basket of male deplorables made for dismantling by a veteran provocateur.
In his first feature in a decade, and the first one in French, Verhoeven clearly enjoys the intricate thought processes of a truly independent woman, one willing to play warped S&M games without ever playing the victim. Then Elle ups the ante. The rapist returns for more of the same. And Michele complies, but this time with pepper spray and a withering tongue. When she finally unmasks her attacker and still continues with the charade, the movie starts writing its own definition of female empowerment.
Huppert, an fearless actress (see The Piano Teacher), gives a performance that’s a riveting mix of carnal and chilly – you can’t take your eyes off her. There is outrage from critics who mistakenly believe that this is a film about a woman who enjoys sexual assault and might even deserve it, given her own complicity in rape-obsessed video games. But from its opening salvo to the shocking twist ending, Elle refuses to traffic in anything resembling misogynistic business as usual. Verhoeven creates a bonfire of a movie that scrutinizes and satirizes the unholy alliance between sex and violence. The result is fiendishly funny and fiercely disturbing. Dig in.