It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.
Elle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.
About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.
The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.
There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.
Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.
Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.
I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.
Nate’s Grade: B