The notoriously provocative Dutch director Paul Verhoeven shook up Hollywood in the late 1980s and early 1990s with a string of violent, sexually explicit, and deeply satirical riffs on the basest of blockbuster material-the anti-corporate sci-fi shocker RoboCop (1987), the Schwarzenegger send-up Total Recall (1990), the lurid Basic Instinct (1992), and the campy Showgirls (1995). He has been all but missing since the mid-2000s, when he returned to his native Holland and directed the engaging war thriller Black Book (2006), about a Jewish woman infiltrating the Nazi high command for the Dutch resistance. That film marked something of a shift for Verhoeven, as it was the closest thing he had come to a "straight" film (complete with nods to David Lean) since his Dutch war films in the late 1970s. Since then, the only project he has made is the not-even-feature-length experiment Tricked (2012).
Thus, his newest film, Elle, is immediately intriguing if only because it is his first feature-length production in a decade. What would the infamous provocateur choose for his big return? As it turns out-and this should come as a surprise to exactly nobody-he has chosen an incendiary subject: an adaptation of Philippe Djian's 2012 French novel Oh ..., about a woman who develops an intense sexual relationship with her rapist (the screenplay was penned by David Birke, who has mostly written low-budget horror features and films about serial killers). "It's twisted," a character says at one point late in the film, and at that point most viewers will readily agree, although that is, of course, part of the allure. You don't go to a Verhoeven film for political correctness of anything even closely resembling good taste, and part of the problem with Elle is that, on some level, he wants to make the film, well, tasteful. Had he made something more self-consciously garish or darkly comical, the material might have worked, but Elle suffers from something of a split personality, with Verhoeven gleefully shocking us while also reaching for art-film bona fides.
The great Isabelle Huppert, who is nominated for an Oscar for her role here, is the film's greatest asset. She plays the protagonist, Michle Leblanc, a highly successful Parisian businesswoman who co-owns a successful video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). Anna is the person with who she is closest, although that doesn't stop her from carrying on a sexual relationship with Anna's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel). She is divorced from Richard (Charles Berling), a struggling author with whom she still maintains a close relationship. The same cannot be said for her other relationships, whether that be with her adult son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), a shiftless dolt who is manipulated by his emotionally unstable, pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), or her mother (Judith Magre), an unapologetic female rou with a taste for younger men. Michle's most strained relationship is with her father, who has been in prison for three decades for reasons that are not revealed until about halfway through the film. She is cordial with her friends and neighbors, including Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome stock broker who lives across the street with his devoted Catholic wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira), although she has a fairly combative relationship with many of those who work at her company. She is, in short, an extremely complicated woman who is simultaneously sympathetic and galling. There is much that is admirable about her, particularly her willpower and self-made resilience, but she is also a hypocrite and a liar, and the sheen of iciness that covers her day-to-day activities acts as an armor to keep at arm's length, including us.
Our first image of Michle is not one of power, though, but of victimization, as she lies on her back on the floor of her dining room having just been raped by a masked assailant dressed in black who is still hovering over her (we hear the rape over a black screen, although we get flashbacks of it throughout the film). It's a shock of an opening, and it leads to a lengthy sequence in which Michle pulls herself together after the attack, sweeping up broken glass, taking a bath, and then hosting dinner for Vincent and Josie. For reasons not readily apparent, she refuses to involve the police and attempts to simply put the horrendous event behind her and move on (Verhoeven finds a perfect visual metaphor for her attitude toward the attack in her post-rape bath, as she nonchalantly bats away a rising triangle of blood in the bubbles). At work she is overseeing the development of a violent videogame, part of which involves a medieval princess being raped by an ogre with long tentacles, which sets up a discomfiting connection between real-world and fantasy violence that plays into a later subplot in which someone in the office replaces the princess's face with Michle's and emails it to everyone.
But, that is not all. Michle starts receiving text messages from her attacker, suggesting that he is watching her, and at one point he breaks into her flat while she is gone. She becomes determined to find out who the man is, and the fact that his identity is revealed not much past the halfway point suggests that the whodunit aspect of the thriller is not Verhoeven's end game. What he's really interested in is what happens after Michle learns her attacker's identity, and it's not pretty. Much of the film is concerned with their subsequent relationship, which ultimately involves a lot of things not being said and the rape being re-enacted over and over again because that is the only way he can get sexually aroused and she is, if not exactly into it, willing to comply.
This sets up quite a conundrum in terms of identification, not to mention thorny issues involving sexuality, sexual violence, and various forms of empowerment. We are clearly meant to see Michle as a strong, empowered woman-she runs her own business, determines the nature of her relationships, and basically leads her life for her own gain and pleasure-except in her relationship with her attacker, where she is reduced to a constant victim. But, even that isn't necessarily true, as virtually every aspect of her life could be explained through various aspects of victimhood, beginning with her tortured relationship with her imprisoned father, with whom she has not spoken since she was 10 years old. She is disgusted by her elderly mother's sexual predilections, but her own are no better (and, in a sense, less honest), which suggests that she is really disgusted by herself. She criticizes Vincent's dysfunctional relationship with Josie, but she has no meaningful or healthy relationships herself (her friendship with Anna is fundamentally crippled by her affair with her husband).
A crucial moment at the end of the film finds her revealing a hurtful truth to another character for no reason other than her desire to stop lying, which suggests a moment of both self-awareness and desire to improve. Yet, there isn't enough time at the end of the film to really explore that development, and instead Verhoeven tacks on a scene of reconciliation that makes little or no sense except to paper over Michle's various sins. Huppert does everything she can with the role, and she is frequently hypnotic and always intriguing, but in the end the provocations don't add up and the film's sense of resolution built around female solidarity feels, at best, forced, and at worst phony.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Sony Pictures Classics
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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