Paul Verhoeven has built a career of making movies that are about more than they seem, but what he's pulled off with Elle is truly remarkable. His first time behind the camera since 2006's Dutch WWII thriller Black Book, Verhoeven has done more than breach standard Hollywood etiquette when it comes to depicting victims of rape, he's stuck his foot right up etiquette's ass. For the film, which stars the incomparable Isabelle Huppert and begins with her character's sexual assault at the hands of a masked assailant, will offend and intrigue in equal measure by defying cultural norms in just about every respect. But that's exactly what makes it such a fascinating experiment. Prepare to be disgusted with yourself for loving every twisted moment.
Audience provocation begins immediately after Elle's rape, in which she's left gasping and bleeding on a pile of broken dishes. Business-like she picks herself up, dusts herself off, and goes about her day like nothing happened. She orders take-out, sushi in fact. She has a bath, noting the froth of blood rising up to the water's surface. Her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) pays a visit, giving Elle the chance to bitch about his pregnant girlfriend who she sees as a manipulative bully. Wait a minute...wasn't this woman just raped like 20 minutes ago?
That incredulous feeling is exactly what Verhoeven is going for. Our first expectation is for Elle to be just another victim, wallowing in the miserable memory of the attack. But that's not at all who she is, and the film becomes about the kind of person who can so easily move on from such a thing. She's utterly fearless in everything under her control, which is pretty much everything. The owner of a video game company, Elle's strong personality has made enemies of the all-male geek squad that work under her. She demands greater "orgasmic convulsions" in a lewd game where a tentacled monster sexually penetrates a buxom victim. Elle has no problem sleeping around with her best friend's husband, yet scoffs at her mother's relationship with a much younger man. A mass of contradictions, Elle seems to be consumed by the attack as much as she is distant from the violence of it. But what's most intriguing is how she uses those contradictions to fuel her naturally controlling behavior, especially in her growing attraction to a married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) that becomes very dangerous.
The blase attitude she shows matches Verhoeven's dismissive attitude towards rape, and yes the film is dismissive of it. But anybody who wants to reduce Elle to merely a "rape comedy" might want to dig a bit further and examine their feelings on Huppert's character. With a glint in her eye Elle flashes back to the assault, imagining what she might have done to the attacker. Or sometimes, just imagining the attack in full context. Each time the scene is enough to hit us like a punch in the gut, only matched by subsequents attack on Elle later on, to the point where it's almost comical when and how they occur. But again, that's exactly what Verhoeven wants, for us to laugh at the absurdity of it and to question if Elle is actually enjoying all of this. And that's really the meat of what the movie is going for. How would it make us feel if Elle enjoyed being raped? Should we hate her? Pity her? Or should we respect her for not letting it dominate and define her life? That said, her way of coping, which includes trying to find her assailant and understand him, is still a little tough to comprehend. How it plays out, at least for a borderline sociopath like Elle (because I've decided she has to be certifiable to some degree), still rings true and is insanely entertaining to watch.
This is the Verhoeven who has been defined by cheeky sex movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, so we shouldn't be surprised Elle is totally off the beaten path. There's considerably less of the "trash cinema" factor here, but make no mistake Elle is as much exploitation as anything Verhoeven has ever done. That Huppert is game for it isn't a surprise either. Her performance here is beyond reproach and the what it means when we call performances "brave". For there already has been backlash for a movie that doesn't take sexual assault too seriously, or at least not as seriously as it demands. But that courage in even making a movie like Elle is why it demands to be seen. Doubtful we'll see the sexual dynamic explored again like this any time soon, but if it does don't be surprised if Verhoeven is behind the camera.
Rating: 4 out of 5