you can read elle’s provocative, strangely sardonic and icy psychodrama in various contradictory ways. On one level, it’s a shocking tale of sexual violence and dangerous role-playing from the director of Basic Instinct and showgirls, the latter of whom was cut by UK censors for potentially eroticizing rape. In another, it’s an astonishing showcase for Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert, cinema’s most intrepid cinematic presence, who describes the film as a “human comedy” about “a woman’s empowerment” with a “post-feminist” heroine. If the definition of intelligence is the ability to have two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time, then Elle is a movie designed to make its audience feel truly intelligent.
adapted from philippe djian’s novel oh…, verhoeven’s first french-language feature film opens with the ambiguous screeches and grunts of a violent assault: a gory rape, glimpsed in fragments, to which the film will return hauntingly in various guises reconfigured. The attack by a masked intruder is grotesque, but the aftermath is eerily placid, as Huppert’s businesswoman Michèle casually tidies up, showers and orders sushi. “I fell off my bike,” she tells her ineffectual son when asked about her injuries. later, she informs her colleagues: “it’s over, it’s not worth debating.”
Running a company that makes lurid and sexualized video games (“orgasmic seizures are too shy”), michèle profits from exploring and exploiting the dark fantasies of her consumers. But when obscene texts and videos suggest her assailant is a co-worker, she refuses to go to the police, haunted by memories of her monstrous father’s arrest years ago (“never again”). Hardened by the past and refusing to be defined as a “victim” (a label she was denied as a child), Ella Michèle changes her locks, learns about guns, and coolly sets out to track down her assailant. but to what end?
verhoeven originally wanted to shoot djian’s paris-set novel in either boston or chicago, with nicole kidman at the helm. But when neither the cast nor the financing was available, David Birke’s English script was translated back into French by Harold Manning, and Huppert took on the role of Michèle. “I can’t believe someone in the US. uu. was able to do this and get away with it,” Verhoeven told Sight & sound. certainly no one but huppert could have given such an oddly playful sense to such incendiary material. In Huppert’s hands, Michèle may always crash in the same car, but at least she’s in the driver’s seat.
As the sadomasochistic heroine of Michael Haneke’s piano teacher, Michèle struggles to orchestrate and control the narrative scenarios of her life and sexual identity. (“What role did she play?” she asks a TV documentary about her father’s crimes). In stark contrast, the men around her are weak and enfeebled, from her best friend Anna’s (Anne Consigny) husband, whom Michele throws into a wastebasket at work, to her son, who is humiliatingly emasculated by his girlfriend. even his ex. husband, a struggling writer now pathetically dating a snappy, literate admirer (“big-titted dorks never bothered me, but the second-sex-reader will chew you up”).
With Buñuelian glee, Verhoeven deconstructs these bourgeois lives (fun dinners from hell and feud-filled funerals abound) in which religious hypocrisy provides constant background noise. Stéphane Fontaine’s supple cinematography injects a note of unusual improvisation, while the sliding strings and throbbing rhythms of Anne Dudley’s score amplify voyeuristic winks out the rear window. however, elle remains less of a thriller than a character study (which passes the bechdel test); a “mystery” in which the identity of the aggressor is barely hidden. Not surprisingly, Verhoeven cites Renoir and Fellini, rather than Hitchcock or Chabrol, as her main influences.
“shame is not an emotion strong enough to stop us from doing anything,” declares michèle, a phrase that resonates as verhoeven tackles a narrative that is “twisted…sick, sick.” From The Fourth Man to The Black Book, the Dutch director has proven himself to be a multilingual agent provocateur, delighted to make audiences uncomfortable, daring them to be outraged. Yet despite a trio of male writers, it is Huppert’s Michèle who dominates Elle, her steely determination and her indomitable presence somehow making her the author (or perhaps author) of the her own story.
As for the movie, I’m still conflicted, but otherwise I’m in awe. He may not have won the Oscar, but frankly, he deserves all the trophies.