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Paul Verhoeven’s ventures into irreverence and topical discussion have always been assigned to lavish psychosexual entertainment, mostly overlooked however are his films’ dramatic undertones, which are always sincere, biting and deeply self-aware. Elle takes the irreverence and drama of Verhoeven’s work a step further, and since watching it I’m yet to find a more bracingly visceral film by the Dutch Hollywood icon. His every gesture here shows an unsettling composure to the atrocities and emotions acted out on screen. He seems to understand the impact of his images, and exploits them for their raw power. Elle feels like it’s having an impassioned, deeply taboo love affair with our subconscious. Its opening scene is perhaps one of the most vile and eye-opening in recent memory: Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video game label, is being raped (mid-sequence) by a masked assailant.
Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle is brash, enigmatic and sensual. I can’t think of another performance to compare to her lest it precede with the word “less”. Within the opening moments of the film we see Michèle lying in a bath, if not for one small detail in the scene everything about the scene’s calmness and her nonchalant demeanor would indicate nothing serious had just occurred. At a dinner with three of her friends on the same night, Michèle mentions the “assault” in passing without the slightest indignation toward what just happened (“It’s over. It doesn’t need talking about anymore.”). Her reaction, however, isn’t simply denial of what has just occurred. By going out and purchasing a can pepper spray, as well as a tiny hatchet, her reaction seems to indicate reprisal or revenge.
The foibles and obstacles of Michèle’s life come into play in an almost dark comic opera, the dimwitted adult son, the freeloading mother, and her younger stud-of-a-neighbor whom she develops a deep attraction for, all compound into Michèle’s personal quest to exact revenge on her rapist. Verhoeven prepares his film like a master chef, slowly stirring in his ingredients to create a magisterial feast, while always tempting us with the main course. Michèle’s seemingly androphobic quest against the men in her life starts to become a denser study in the enigma of human compulsion, and with every encounter and misadventure (her clash with her unfaithful daughter-in-law, a confrontation with her masochistic coworker, a love affair with her friend’s boyfriend) the film starts to become tautological, every subplot coalesces to the relativity of desire, and the moral implications behind it.
Paul Verhoeven’s topics, in science fiction and other genres, have always amounted to a high form of schlock, but always acknowledged was the man’s capacity for tearing down the structures of American capitalism. The pure, unfiltered audacity of films like Showgirls have gone mostly unrecognized, but Robocob, Total Recall and even Starship Troopers ultimately became timely protests against the depreciation of personal identity, social identity and national identity (respectively) in a generation where multimedia, controlled by big corporations and political groups, had reached its pinnacle in doubling down on their power of mass conformity. In many respects Elle, beyond the feminist tract and empowerment fantasy, is about the identity of the mind, disassociated from the hub of public, social interaction.
Michèle herself is mostly a enigma in the film, some of her essential moments of characterization are met with only silent, inexplicable looks—deviant and mischievous grins seems to be Huppert’s masterstroke. Even in her twisted confessional (of a traumatic childhood event), following a scandalous dinner party sequence, Michèle describes to her neighbor a defining moment in her life as if detached from it, explaining it as a spectator would rather than as someone who’s experienced it first-hand (“My empty stare in the photo is terrifying”). Paul Verhoeven script reminds us of an image’s lasting power (“Bizarrely, it’s that photo that stuck in people’s minds”) but it’s Huppert’s performance as Michèle which reminds us that it’s what lurks beneath an image that truly matters and what ultimately remains unknowable.
Paul Verhoeven is a maestro of pop-entertainment, creating some of the most resplendent visuals and rip-roaring transparency in American cinema, it comes as no surprise that when he chooses to invert the refulgent likability of his movies for pungency and shock art his power as filmmaker remain potent as ever. If Elle is at all a study of what it means to be a woman in a scary hostile world, then it serves to rid the foolhardy empowerment clichés of other feminist empowerment tracts by subverting those clichés at every turn. The rape-turned-romance is just one of Verhoeven’s many filmic transgressions, but whether they’re meant to provoke or rouse it’s Verhoeven’s striking ability to get at the nerve of human sensitivity which successfully illuminates Elle’s moments of unexpected beauty and remarkable foresight.