A committed, first-rate performance from Isabelle Huppert forms the centre of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a rape revenge thriller guaranteed to cause controversy and jab at raw nerves. It is easily Verhoeven’s best work in years, and a reminder of just how much of a provocateur he was in his heyday. Love him or hate him, he has never been boring. In fact, Verhoeven is a lot cleverer than many give him credit for, even now.
The film opens with the afore-mentioned rape, whereby successful businesswoman Michele (Huppert) is attacked by a masked man who has broken into her home. The camera remains mostly fixed on the face of her cat, so the sequence initially appears relatively restrained. But heaven forbid good taste prevail in a Paul Verhoeven film so yes, we get it again via flashback, in graphic detail. Here I should add the usual warnings – sex, nudity, sexual violence, regular violence, and very strong language are all present and correct. And yes, some sequences make for uncomfortable viewing, to put it mildly.
Following the rape, Michele clears up broken cutlery, takes a bath, and appears to give a Gallic shrug over the whole business. She refuses to call the police (for reasons that are later revealed) and instead gets on with her life as a producer of video games containing extreme sex and violence. But when she continues to receive anonymous threats, she attempts to unmask the perpetrator. At this point, the various men in her life all become suspects. Could it be an admirer? A disgruntled employee? Her ex-husband? Her business partner’s husband (with whom she is having an affair)? Someone else entirely? Various melodramatic subplots weave in and out of this narrative, including childhood trauma, cuckolding and Elle’s pathological deep-seated masochism, which comes into play in ways that will make the audience squirm in their seats.
Elle works on multiple levels. It is brilliantly acted and directed (with Verhoeven helming his first French language film), and the screenplay (based on the novel Oh… by Phillipe Dijan) has a lot of Hitchcockian fun with the thriller aspect, throwing in red herrings by the bucket load. The film also works as social satire, with many laugh-out-loud sequences for those with a dark and twisted sense of humour. Although the film has attracted ire from those who read it as a misogynist fantasy, Verhoeven makes the problematic elements of the story deliberately ambiguous, allowing for an empowerment-of-women type reading as well. But regardless of sexual politics, Elle is consistently gripping and blackly comic, driven by the amazing, Oscar nominated performance of its lead actress.
In summary, really I can only recommend this to the impossible-to-offend crowd. But even if you are offended, I guarantee Elle won’t bore you.