To simply call it a revenge film or a rape comedy is to miss the tangled web of unsettling ideas and emotions at the core of Elle’s icy, bleeding heart. Paul Verhoeven’s latest is a relentless, risky depiction of assault, trauma and survival that subverts sexual power dynamics and societal expectations of victimhood. In a career filled with controversial fare like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Elle stands out as one of the director’s most challenging and fully realized works.
As in so many of Verhoeven’s films, there are whiplash-inducing shifts in tone; one version of this film is a black comedy about Michèle’s antagonistic relationships with her mother and son, while another is a workplace drama that pits the successful CEO against a sexist employee. There are shocking moments of graphic violence that rival anything else in Verhoeven’s library of brutality, and Michèle’s horrific childhood provides the kind of gruesome backstory that wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film.
The rape itself is terrifying and provides the blacked-out in medias res opening. A typical scene of coffee, cat and newspaper is shattered when the ski-masked assailant crashes through the glass door, pinning Michèle to the ground with terrifying ferocity. Rape is a violation of consent through force of will, an expression of control that says more about the perpetrator than it does the victim. Michèle emerges from a bloody bath, determined to unmask her attacker, to invert the imbalance of power. Verhoeven lays a red herring in the form of an ultimately fruitless investigation of several employees who seem to harbor an intense dislike for Michèle, so when she does rip off the mask, viewers become as shocked as the her.
Like so many women who are sexually assaulted, Michèle knows her attacker, and in a twist of fate as sharp as a razor blade, it’s someone she knows; someone she’s already attracted to. Now she has the upper hand, and the complex relationship that develops between the two is where Elle’s delirious pychosexual thrills emerge. Their slippery, sadomasochistic relationship represents Michèle’s reclamation of her power and the decimation of his; their high-stakes role-play has more betrayal and double crossings than a John le Carré novel.
With the barest of glances and slightest of movements, Isabelle Huppert hints at the vast roiling landscape lurking just below Michèle Leblanc’s crystalline facade. She is all cocked eyebrows, observant eyes, lips puckered in discreet but distinct disapproval of everyone and everything around her, and Huppert is in masterful control as a woman who should be deeply, irrevocably broken but comes across as the most likeable person in the entire film. Her charismatic, even flippant, attitude draws viewers in, even as she cheerily describes a pivotal, bloody moment of her childhood to a neighbor she barely knows, or calmly tells her sexually confrontational mother that she’ll murder her if she marries her much-younger gigolo boyfriend.
Verhoeven has long commented on his admiration for the work of the 17th century Dutch Realists — masters of observation, detail, and nuance — whose influence is readily seen in his work. His dedication to showing women in every facet of their complicated, contradictory natures becomes fully realized in Elle, which can claim The Piano Teacher as a queasy, kindred spirit. This is who Michèle Leblanc is, and she is not here for you.
There’s a reason Huppert has already racked up several prizes from critics and scored a Golden Globe nomination. Michèle is an impeccably-dressed, tightly-coiled spring ready to explode at any moment, but instead of inviting sympathy, she rejects it with an almost violent force. Her refusal to allow herself to be victimized shatters the societal expectation of victimhood in deeply uncomfortable ways, and, given what we know of her troubled history, feels like an organic choice, not one meant to manufacture outrage.
Verhoeven and Huppert have a gift for finding and exploiting the grayest of gray areas, for showcasing the uneasy ambiguities of life that defy our desire for a linear narrative. Elle is a demented Rorschach test of the highest degree.
Adrienne McIlvaine (@mizocty) lives in Brooklyn and has written about film and television for Time Warner, Cut Print Film, FilmFish and HelloGiggles. She keeps the ticket stubs of every movie she sees and wishes there were more films like The Wicker Man (not the Nicolas Cage one). She’s also a fierce advocate for going to the movies by yourself, The Counselor and reading the book first.