If you're at all familiar with the career of Paul Verhoeven, from the lurid eroticism of "Basic Instinct" to the bloodsoaked violence of "RoboCop," you know that the filmmaker takes great pleasure in shocking his audience. Verhoeven's films have a nihilistic tinge, containing layers of cruelty and inhumanity which the director often presents with a detached, intellectual curiosity.
His almost clinical presentation of the taboo is consistently utilized to subvert our expectations of genre conventions. At 78, Verhoeven is still up to his old tricks with the twisted psychosexual thriller "Elle," and if reaction to the film is any indication, the years have done nothing to dull his ability to expertly push people's buttons.
The Danish provocateur has found his muse in French cinema icon Isabelle Huppert, who stars as Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a video game company she runs alongside her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). With an icy demeanor and an air of superiority, Michèle appraises everything that crosses her path with a smirk and a raised eyebrow suggesting that it's all come up wanting. This disapproval extends to her useless adult son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and her mother (Judith Magre), who's grown entangled with a much younger lover. But Michèle remains as cool a customer as they come.
Our introduction to the character is another matter entirely: we meet Michèle as she's being violently raped by a masked intruder on the floor of her chic Paris apartment. In the moments immediately after that attack, Michèle sweeps up the broken glass and takes a bath, where we observe her swish away the blood that drifts up to stain the pristine white bubbles a dark red. She orders some sushi and has a visit from Vincent, explaining the fresh bruises on her face by telling him she fell off her bike. The horrifying incident seems to have barely altered her routine.
In fact, she doesn't acknowledge it at all until several days later, when she casually brings it up during dinner with friends. Michèle never reports the crime, and we gradually glean that her avoidance of police involvement is a remnant of a particularly dark chapter in her family's history, events that formed her distrust of the law and cemented her unwillingness to ever be seen as a victim.
Obviously there's no "right" way for someone to behave after going through such a traumatic event, but Michèle's actions are still often baffling. Verhoeven allows her motivations to remain opaque, although her impassive initial reaction is nothing compared to the more startling actions she takes as the film progresses.
The identity of Michèle's assailant remains a mystery, and for a time the film takes the form of a whodunit as a number of potential suspects are introduced -- from her bitter employees, ineffectual ex, handsome neighbor, and Anna's husband, with whom Michèle has been having an affair. That so many men could potentially have it in for Michèle is indicative of the systemic misogyny that's seeped into every aspect of her existence. The perpetrator is revealed earlier than you might expect, and from there the film shifts into a character study of Michèle and her response to her rape.
We see that initial attack again and again throughout the film's running time, as Michèle replays it in her mind, each repetition including more graphic detail as she daydreams about exacting bloody revenge, though it's hard to tell whether these fantasies are a product of trauma or arousal. Acting on impulses that frequently seem a mystery even to herself, Michèle demonstrates an almost sadomasochistic drive as she seeks out some unsettling ways to reclaim the agency that was taken from her. At a certain point she admits to Anna, "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all."
"Elle" isn't an easy watch. Besides the contentious subject matter, there's much to unpack; from the consequence of guilt to the dangerous dance of power and desire, it's all presented with a razor-sharp satirical edge. Verhoeven drops all these elements at the feet of his audience and lets us interpret them how we will. The director has more on his mind than a simple rape revenge fantasy, and though I never had a clue where the film was headed, that makes for thrilling viewing.
Audiences drawn in by the film's recent wins for Best Actress and Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes last Sunday are in for a shock with "Elle." It's as far from safe, middlebrow entertainment as one can get, as viewers are likely to leave unsettled and without the comfort of easy answers or reassurances. "You always wanted a sanitized version of life," Michèle's mother tells her during one of the strained conversations they have throughout the film. But those aren't the sorts of lives the characters in Verhoeven's films lead. The world he tosses his audiences into are anything but squeaky clean.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a recap of the best films of 2016.