Elle will no doubt become known as the film that launched a thousand think-pieces, and for those who hold strong negative attitudes regarding Paul Verhoeven, it will provide ammunition to be used in arguments regarding his perceived misogyny. But, there is not a single moment in Elle when one doubts that Verhoeven knows exactly what he’s doing and why. Every unexpected twist that builds towards a resolution that appears, on the surface, to say something quite dangerous about rape is actually exquisitely tuned to challenge and make you think rather than present a negative or damaging viewpoint.
The film opens with a black screen and the sounds of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) being raped – although this is not intended necessarily to be immediately obvious to us. We are then presented not with the events that are occurring that are causing these sounds, but instead the blank, expressionless stare of Michèle’s cat. As it looks on passively there is then a cut to Michèle being raped on the floor of her dining room by a ski-masked attacker. We are now in many ways as useless and complicit as the cat, passively observing as the rape occurs in front of us.
Michèle owns a video game company and in a later scene she comments that a video-game sequence in which a Cthulhu character sprouts tentacles and slams them through the head of a woman bent over a table doesn’t feature enough orgasmic sound effects. The parallels being drawn here to her own attack seem obvious and perhaps simplistic, but they are anything but flippant or easy to unpack, Verhoeven is challenging us to think about passivity in media, the way in which Michèle copes with her own sexual assault and a great many other things. None of which are particularly comfortable.
Following her assault, Michèle doesn’t report the break in and rape to the police, instead she just closes the door, sweeps up some broken glass, has a bath, and to some degree just gets on with her life. There is the sense that to her this wasn’t that big a deal in a way, and she is not interested in it defining her. She is also clearly intrigued, leading to the film’s most problematic – with a hashtag and a capital P – direction in the final act.
This direction is always about Michèle trying to understand or explore something though – she is looking into the darkness both around her and inside herself too – and therefore Verhoeven just about gets away with a turn in the plot that really, really shouldn’t work. It’s a twist that will no doubt be debated for many years to come.
Filling out the rest of the cast are a number of eccentric characters in Michèle’s life – she is, significantly, reviled in society for being the daughter of a serial killer – and Verhoeven and screenwriter Daniel Birke mine these side characters and Michèle’s frequently pragmatic and arch approach to life for a great deal of comedy. You see, this twisting, frequently dramatic thriller that deals with incredibly serious subjects is also a comedy. And a frequently really funny one too. Good taste may dictate that it shouldn’t be, but the humour in a number of scenes – occasionally a loud laugh is achieved simply by an eyebrow raise from Huppert – is really very well written and incredibly wittily executed.
Huppert is the keystone in this whole endeavour, and without her bold, assured and highly expressive performance it would all come crumbling down. There are many times when she is called upon to do something that on paper would be impossible to believe that a real person would do or say, but Huppert utterly convinces despite these difficulties.
Elle is a tightrope walk that is a thrilling marvel to witness and one that will leave you wondering how it was achieved, why it was achieved, and most importantly puzzling over how you ultimately feel about it. Verhoeven and co. may wobble a few times as they make the delicate journey across the rope, but this is the kind of dangerous and thought-provoking cinema that gets one’s mind racing and leads to deep thought and impassioned arguments. An astonishingly bold film and a thrilling new feature from a director who has lost none of the fire that has made him such an interesting talent for multiple decades.