[Note: This is a repost of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival; Elle opens in limited release this weekend, with city expansions to follow]
There are few filmmakers who seem to delight in provoking audiences and offending delicate sensibilities as much as Paul Verhoeven. The man who brought you Robocop, Starship Troopers, Black Book, and (shudder) Showgirls has a knack for latching onto a popular lurid genre, doubling down the perversion, upping the insanity, and then topping it all off with liberal doses of satirical humour to giggle about the fact that anyone ever takes this sort of thing seriously. After a few years away from his dirty camera, Verhoeven has returned with Elle, which can only be described as a darkly comedic rape/revenge thriller. No one else would have the good/bad taste to even attempt such a thing, much less the talent to actually pull it off. God bless that crazy Dutch man.
The movie wastes no time prodding viewers with discomfort. The opening credits play over the sound of a rape and the first image is that of our unique heroine Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) laying on the floor of her posh home following the assault. She calmly dusts herself off and cleans up the crime scene. She doesn’t call the police, instead going about her life as if nothing happened. She goes to work at her video game company to supervise a particularly sexually violent cut-scene (which she claims isn’t harsh enough). She continues an affair with her best friend’s husband. She mercilessly criticizes her son for his controlling girlfriend and her mother for her latest boy toy. She hosts a bickering dinner party. She deals with the stress of her mass-murdering father facing parole and the media onslaught therein. She also finds herself fantasizing about her assault and studying the face of every man in her life to determine the identity of her attacker.
So, this isn’t exactly the most conventional treatment of this sort of subject matter and Michele certainly isn’t an average victim. Some might claim the material is handled in a misogynistic way, yet the truth is more complicated. Michele is a fascinatingly complex character and her response is highly personal, rooted in a lifetime of emotional callousness and possibly a touch of psychosis. The character works almost entirely thanks to Isabelle Huppert in one of her finest performances. The actress keeps the character a mystery to viewers throughout, yet plays her with an inner confidence that knows all the answers. She’s wise, driven, strong, and even downright diabolical. Her life so rigidly organized and held at such a calculated distance that there’s little room for emotional response, even to trauma. Huppert inhabits the role with the right degree of coldly calculating intelligence and secret psychosis to be oddly credible and always fascinating. She’s no hero, but she’s never less than compelling.
While Huppert dives into the material with intelligence, care, and the utmost seriousness necessary to craft so such a complex character, Verhoeven has plenty of winking fun in his telling of the uniquely twisted story. He knows how to structure, shoot, and cut a thriller for maximum visceral impact and uses all those tricks here. It’s a tale of endless intrigue, shock, and suspense. Yet, he also knows what a bad boy he’s being and plays it all with a tongue firmly in his cheek. His supporting characters are all somewhat ludicrous genre types and comedic comments, just played completely straight by the actors. The increasingly melodramatic plot is a game of tasteless one-upmanship for the filmmaker, mocking the very conventions it uses to manipulate viewers in subtle and sarcastic ways. There are certainly some serious themes explored and expertly crafted set pieces, yet it all feels quite playful. It’s almost a prankster provocation taking some of the most pressingly sensitive themes of the day and filtering it through a perverted potboiler. Verhoeven has fun pushing buttons, yet still pushes them with a purpose and has Huppert’s remarkable performance as a secret weapon to ground his most outlandish impulses.
Pitched somewhere between a filthy B-movie and a thoughtful art house social satire, Elle is a tricky film to pin down and deliberately so. Paul Verhoeven may dabble in mainstream entertainment, but he constructs his films for adults willing to engage with the ugly ideas buried in genre flicks and giggle at their desire for cheap thrills. This is one of his most complex thrillers to date, filled with tricky politics and psychological profiles yet offering no easy answers and plenty of discomforting laughs. It’s designed to be divisive and inspire debate, which isn’t common in a movie featuring a masked stalker in a ski mask. Elle will certainly find controversy and praise as it slithers out to subtitle-friendly audiences. This will be one of the most discussed and debated films of the year for those who enjoy a good foreign film provocation. The only element that won’t be debated is Isabelle Huppert’s remarkable performance, which could well earn her a number of awards from any group unafraid to support the inevitably controversial movie. As for Verhoeven, he’ll remain the smartypants wise ass in the back of the theater, giggling at all of the offense and elation he’s caused. That guy wouldn’t have it any other way.
Elle will be released on November 11, 2016 and expand the following weeks.