Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has dedicated his career to sifting through trash to extract ugly truths. He's a former math and physics student who decided movies make more sense. But it's hard to picture him crunching numbers and plugging in formulas and dealing with absolute answers, as his proudly pugnacious movies depict worlds where logic and reason often are difficult to discern and answers are frustratingly ambiguous. Verhoeven has spent decades cine-psychoanalyzing the relationship between sex and violence, pulp and profundity.
Excluding the 53-minute audience-participation stunt Tricked, the septuagenarian director hasn't made a proper feature since Black Book in 2006, so he has been spared the overly didactic hot-take interpretations that proliferate online. His new film, Elle, adapted by David Birke from Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, is, in a way, Verhoeven's own hot take on his career. It stars Isabelle Huppert as a rape survivor named Michèle, a former literary editor who now develops fetid video games about goblins and trolls, concoctions conjoined from Lovecraft, Tolkien and the Marquis de Sade.
Just as Verhoeven uses lowbrow genres to create scathing satires of capitalism (RoboCop) and fascism (Starship Troopers), Michèle uses video games to expose nasty truths about human desires. Her monsters violate women from behind with writhing tendrils, their faces contorted into drooling snarls. She demands that her staff make the attacks fiercer, the women's faces more orgasmic. She calls one assault “the boner moment.” She wants immersion, for the player to feel “hot, sticky blood on their hands.” One of her employees criticizes her for not caring about the game's controls or playability, and she doesn't rebut.
Elle is concerned with immersion and control. It opens in daylight with a closeup of a cat, innocuous and docile. We hear an entanglement of bodies, a violent struggle, which the cat watches passively, unperturbed, trundling away once the rapist climaxes. This is how we meet Michèle — on her back, her dress slit open. We don't see the rape, just the end of the incident, from afar, an unintrusive static shot that frames the supine bodies in a doorway. (Later, when Michèle has gained a semblance of control, a second rape is shot similarly, but on the right side now, shrouded in darkness.)
We only see that first rape clearly in a flashback, which tumbles into frame with jarring immediacy. Michèle’s reaction is ostensibly torpid and nonchalant — she orders sushi as if nothing has happened, and her laconic explanation to friends is, simply, “I guess I was raped” — but in a revenge daydream she cracks her rapist's skull with an ashtray and works his head into a vermillion lather. As she returns to reality, a sly grin infiltrates her usually stoic, locked-down face. Brutal violence usurped by a smile is maybe the defining idea of the film. Verhoeven treats sexual violence with sobriety (he has repudiated some critics' queasy description of Elle as a “rape comedy”), but most of the film is a burlesque of manners and mannerisms, laced with mordant humor.
Verhoeven has always used genre rather than simply adhere to its rules. Despite its marketing, which depicts the movie as a “rape revenge thriller,” Elle is neither a thriller nor concerned with petty revenge — “Life has no genre,” the director is fond of saying, while Huppert considers Elle “a human comedy.” The film is an uncomfortably hilarious marriage of affinities of Verhoeven's that get called “problematic” with acerbic musings on quotidian bourgeois life — he's called the film “very French,” and it's as dense and dark as un gâteau au chocolat.
Michèle quarrels with her Botox-loving mother (Judith Magre), as well as her money-needing son (Jonas Bloquet), whose life is an imbroglio of failure, and whose despotic pregnant girlfriend is routinely derided by Michèle as “insane.” Verhoeven shrewdly juxtaposes scenes of sexual depravity with a farcical Christmas dinner rife with familial bickering, which the director has likened to Renoir but which bears more than a passing resemblance to Buñuel's absurdist skewering of privilege.
Michèle’s convoluted backstory uncoils with careful consideration, and Elle's elliptical narrative and ink-black comedy reward repeated viewings. Verhoeven slowly reveals, in almost casual asides, the wanton violence that ruined his heroine’s childhood and influenced the trajectory of her adult life. One day her father, a proud and pious Christian who often embellished the foreheads of the local kids with ash crosses, massacred their entire neighborhood, for reasons never satisfactorily ascertained by his family or the police. He also embroiled Michèle in the ghastly affair by having her help him burn the evidence.
Her infamy was assured with one widely circulated photograph that appeared in the papers and again, years later, in a retrospective documentary: young Michèle, appearing ashen and distant, standing before a fire with vacuous eyes — the daughter of a psychopath. The memory clings to her like cigarette smoke. Her father remains a dominating presence over her, even as he withers away in jail decades later.
Verhoeven extrapolates the novel's ideas on the role of forgiveness and penance and Christian veneration in a rotten world into something far more cryptic: an inquiry into not just the nature of what we call “evil” but what kinds of transgressions and monsters we're willing to ignore or absolve.
Though independently successful, Michèle now lives a life replete with unavailing men, from her oafish son to her clingy loser of an ex-husband to her best friend's husband (with whom she's sleeping) and the insolent employee who challenges her in front of her staff — even the guy who fixes her locks after the break-in, a man charged with insuring her literal security. Verhoeven's movies have often been concerned with men who are not in full control of their lives, having their memories hijacked, their bodies rebuilt into corporate-owned contraptions; in Elle, the men, all inept in one way or another, depend on Michèle. They're not monsters, just mediocre.
Elle is unrepentantly a Paul Verhoeven film, but it owes everything to Huppert, whose straight-faced comic delivery has never gotten as much renown as her more solemn work; simpatico with Verhoeven's dastardly sense of humor, she makes the film a serious work of art that mocks Serious Works of Art™. She's had plenty of experience with sordid auteurs: In The Piano Teacher, she plays a masochistic woman who, in a scene shot with Michael Haneke's clinical long-take style, perches a leg on the brim of a bathtub and caresses herself with a razor. It's a fiercely controlled performance, one of the greatest, as calmly unsettling as the thin strip of blood that trickles down the white tub wall. In Elle, this quiet seething gives way, eventually, to sardonic laughter. When you've plumbed the depths of human depravity for so long, what else can you do but laugh?