To call director Paul Verhoeven provocative is like suggesting 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.
“Sometimes you are in a Hitchcock thriller,” says star Isabelle Huppert of the film. “Sometimes you are in a psychological study. Sometimes you are in a comedy and at the end of the day you are in none of those; you are in a Paul Verhoeven film.”
Verhoeven’s originally planned to relocate the story from France to the United States but ran into roadblocks.
“He makes no secret of that,” Huppert laughs. “I like that. He was completely clear. He didn’t want me. He wanted an American movie star. He didn’t get her so finally he came to get me.”
The Paris, France-born actress was a natural choice to play Michelle. 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 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.
“I read the novel first and thought it could potentially be a great film because it is very visual and the character is very interesting,” she says. “Then eventually the writer Philippe Djian said he always had me in mind while he was writing the novel. No wonder I immediately felt connected to the role.”
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. The movie has taken some heat because it’s a male director making a film about a female reaction to assault. Huppert rejects the criticism.
“He told me very little and let me take the role wherever I wanted,” she says of Verhoeven. “That might be so that at the end you don’t have to measure the extent of the [male gaze]. The role is not a man’s fantasy. I don’t think so. The way she is halfway between a victim and the usual James Bondish avenger. She is really in an in between space which I think is, essentially, very, very, feminine. It is the exploration of something in between which makes the character very interesting, That doesn’t make the character like it was the product of a man’s fantasy. Plus as an actress, all the way through, I felt completely protected by him. I never felt the smallest sense of danger or being manipulated.”