Script-flipping European thriller finds Isabelle Huppert getting down with her bad self
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to exploitation. His early, overseas works (Diary of a Hooker, Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Spetters) were visceral tales of earthy, lusty, all-too-human humans driven by their various desires. His move to Hollywood only heightened the carnal elements of blood and sex, serving up such hits as RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. With his latest film, the stripped-down drama Elle, Verhoeven manages to combine his arty, European roots with his later, exploitative fantasies.
Elle—which just nabbed Best Actress (Drama) and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes—stars Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher, Amour, I Heart Huckabees) as Michèle Leblanc, the flinty owner of a video game development company in France who is assaulted and raped in her own home by a masked attacker. Verhoeven gets (some of) the ugly stuff over with quick. The assault happens before the opening credits are done rolling, leaving our heroine a good two hours to deal with the aftermath of this tragic event.
Revenge-for-rape dramas were a big category in the grindhouse era of the late-’70s (I Spit on Your Grave, Act of Vengeance, The Last House on the Left, Lipstick, Ms .45, Savage Streets, to name a few). Verhoeven is undoubtedly well aware of these, twisting the subgenre to his own advantage. Elle is roughly 90 degrees off from its sleazy drive-in theater ancestry. Patient, cold-blooded and deftly psychological, Elle is exploitation for the art house set.
Michèle responds to her brief but awful violation mostly by ignoring it. She goes right back to business as usual, which happens to be running her company with an iron hand. One look at the people in her life and it’s not so much of a stretch to think that the attack in her home was just one more inconvenient roadblock to be crushed under her spiked heel. On a daily basis she’s dealing with a company full of testosterone-addled young men who have little respect for the female of the species. (Putting Michèle in the video game industry is no casual accident.) She’s also saddled with a womanizing ex-husband (Charles Berling), a mother (Judith Magre) addicted to plastic surgery and much younger men, and a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) working in fast food to support his pregnant girlfriend. And then there’s the issue of Michele’s father, who is locked up in prison for life, convicted of some heinous but unspoken (at least for now) crime.
Lest we feel pity for poor Michèle and the monstrous people who surround her, the film’s script (based on the 2012 novel Oh... by Philippe Djian) quickly relieves us of such empathetic notions. Michèle is a shark—a hard-hearted, sangfroid-filled businesswoman whose personal life was buried in chaos and secrets long before the event which kicks off this film. Huppert deserves most of the credit here, turning a character that is essentially a dispassionate sociopath into a fascinating puzzle of a human being.
Eventually, Michèle starts receiving texts from her attacker, leading her to believe that the masked rapist is someone close to her. She begins investigating, looking less for the bloody revenge this lurid genre traditionally requires and more for some twisted form of psychological closure. Michèle is no saint. She’s an amoral, sexually rapacious backstabber. “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,” Michèle tells her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) halfway through the film. It’s a hell of an observation, given that Michèle is sleeping with Anna’s husband. Michèle’s reasons for not going to the police to report her rape are tied up both in her conflicted feelings about the crime and in the complicated backstory involving her father.
Elle has a tricky path to walk and Verhoeven does it with perverse skill. The topic is controversial. The handling is irreverent, even blackly comical at times. Expectations are continually dashed, steering the film away from nearly every genre it flirts with: revenge drama, mystery, crime thriller. Instead, everything keeps circling back to our protagonist and her competing intellectual, emotional and sexual impulses. What is her deal? What is she thinking? What will she do?
Provocative in its conceptualization, thorny in its characterization and convention-flaunting in its execution, Elle is a surprisingly highbrow, self-aware piece of alt.exploitation. It’s a psychosexual thriller that thrills not with the genre tropes of sex and violence, but with the dark, disturbing, naughty and emotional consequences of those most base of actions.