Paul Verhoeven’s roving, varied career has led the Dutch auteur to many unexpected places. He produced biting satire of America’s military fetishization in “Starship Troopers”; he portended a dystopic, police-state country in “RoboCop”; and he created, arguably, the last true mainstream erotic thriller in “Basic Instinct.” Now nearing 80, Verhoeven finds himself entrenched in “Elle,” a lurid, polemical, and deeply engrossing film about a woman (played by Isabelle Huppert) who sets out to find the man who raped her.
Working from Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh …,” the film focuses its attention, squarely, on Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), a successful businesswoman who runs a gaming company. At work, she’s developing a new combat game that involves exploding bodies, tentacles, and other graphic images she suggests to her young, male co-workers aren’t violent enough. They insist that her literary background makes her unfit for game design.
These are specific details Verhoeven includes for context. While at times these workplace scenes feel superfluous, they’re imperative to the film’s meticulous world-building. Before Verhoeven can wade into the psychology of Michèle, he must first establish her surrounding environment.
He continues doing so by adding her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet, “The Family”) to the mix. Handsome but romantically dense, Vincent has fallen in love with Josie (Alice Isaaz), who Michèle repeatedly insists is insane. By all accounts, Michèle’s not wrong: Josie is irrational, tempestuous, and ostensibly hasn’t listened to anyone since elementary school.
There are elements of this plot line that feel forced, and almost offensive in its simplistic depiction of a hysterical woman, but then, on a deeper level, this side-plot is a story of subservience. Vincent is being taken advantage of by Josie. He is weak, and is mostly unable to standup to her in the face of outlandish behavior. Josie preys on this weakness through dominance, both emotionally and rhetorically.
There’s a similar creeping feeling in Michèle’s case. An unidentified masked man broke into her home, assaulted her, and then splayed her body on the floor in an act of sexual violence. The vital difference, of course, is that Michèle had no agency in the matter. She didn’t willfully sign up for this unbearable tragedy. It happened, unexpectedly and swiftly.
As “Elle” continues, though, Michèle does what she can to lead her life. For awhile she’s convinced it will remain unchanged. At a dinner amongst friends, she slips in a retelling of what happened. Silence. Her friends, shocked and mortified. “You need to call the police,” they suggest. She refuses. Michèle is interested in the future, even while her past — this monstrous man — refuses to vanish.
Verhoeven’s builds considerable tension as he places Huppert at the center of the frame, alone and vexed, receiving anonymous texts from her predator. “I like the blouse you’re wearing today,” he unnervingly says. A comment about how his semen would look good on her cream clothes follows. As a performer, Huppert manages to dissect and emote on-the-fly. There’s no precedent here, no clear way someone should respond or behavior in the wake of these egregious events.
What Huppert doesn’t do is become a shell of herself. Determined to live, Michèle still has a sexual appetite. She lusts and loves, at times timidly and at times passionately. To see intimate sequences on the heels of such a painful act of sexual assault is troubling. It is, of course, supposed to be troubling. Verhoeven seeks out discomfort; he thrives off it. “Elle” is constantly toeing the line between empathy and voyeurism. But where does that leave us, the spectator of a spectator?
Verhoeven seems aware of the layers he’s crafting. Moreover, in interviews, he seems to get great joy out of squeamish prospective audiences. As a form of off-kilter advertisement, he often uses words like “controversial” or “uncomfortable” or “provocative.” “Elle” matches all those descriptors and then some: a deeply disturbing film that, at its best, serves as a meditation on the intersection between power, inequitable relationships, and retribution.