To call director Paul Verhoeven provocative is like suggesting that the Atlantic Ocean merely contains some water. He’s the man who gave us “Saved by the Bell” sweetheart Elizabeth Berkley licking a stripper’s pole in “Showgirls” and the splatterfest of “Starship Troopers.” A cursory glance at any of his films suggests his Taste-O-Meter is permanently set at ‘garish but his movies beg—actually they sit up and demand—for more than a cursory look.
His new movie, “Elle,” based on French-Armenian writer Philippe Djian’s award-winning 2012 novel “Oh…,” is a complex and corrosive psychological thriller about a woman seeking revenge on the man who raped her.
In Verhoeven’s French-language debut Isabelle Huppert is Michèle, daughter of a serial killer and CEO of a video game company that specializes in erotic, violent games. As the film opens she is raped by a masked man. Instead of calling the police, however, she cleans up, sweeping up some broken glass before taking a bath and continuing her day. “I was assaulted at home,” she tells friends over dinner. “I guess I was raped.”
She is a complicated character. As the daughter of a notorious serial killer she has developed a hard shell. She’s blunt to the point of rude with everyone from her future daughter-in-law and ex-husband (Charles Berling) to her mother and son, who she refers to as “a big lout with nothing special about him.” She’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband and even deliberately runs into her ex’s car then blames the damage on someone else.
Initially challenged by flashbacks of the assault her steadfastness kicks in as she refuses to allow fear to rule her life. Shortly after the rape she is back at work, scolding one of her programmers, suggesting “the orgasmic convulsions” of one of her game’s ogre characters are “way too timid.”
To give away any more would do a disservice to the film as Verhoeven relies on surprise to unfurl the rest of the occasionally darkly funny story.
“Elle” is a deeply polarizing movie—in Cannes it was equally lauded and condemned—that treads some very delicate territory. Not that this is a delicate film. The assault is first heard, then seen in increasingly graphic detail as the running time climbs to the closing credits. It’s unpleasant, but that is the point. But as jarring as it may be, it is only the beginning of the plot machinations of this dark and dirty suspense.
There will be no spoilers here. For one thing it’s rude to give too much away, and for another, it would take more space than I have here to describe the deep psychological depths Verhoeven and Huppert plumb in this story. It’s fearless stuff, a character study of a captivating anti-heroine who demands your attention while simultaneously pushing you away in scene after scene as she refuses to allow fear to dominate her life.
It’s easy to use words like grotesque, grim and provocative to describe “Elle,” and they would be appropriate but underneath its lurid skin is a Hitchcock movie minus the sexual repression. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a good thing for your sensibilities or not.