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Elle feels like an impassioned, deeply taboo love affair manifesting in the seediest ghettos of our innermost thoughts. Its opening scene is 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. Afterwards, she goes about her day casually, biding her time before planning to exact revenge on her attacker. Paul Verhoeven’s ventures into irreverent topics have always been characterized by lavish psychosexual overtones, under-discussed however are his films’ undertones, which are always sincere and deeply self-aware. Elle takes the irreverency of Verhoeven’s work a step further, but since watching it I am yet to find a more bracingly powerful 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.
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”. In the opening moments of the film we see Michèle lying in a bath tub—one small detail in this scene resulted in as much gasps from the audience as the opening—but it’s clear in this moment that Verhoeven is pushing one important detail about Michèle on us. She is not used to being the victim. At a dinner with three of her friends, Michèle mentions the “attack” nonchalantly. Afterwards she neither accepts or wants any of their pity. Instead she goes out and purchases a can pepper spray and, more opulently, a small double-bitted hatchet.
As the CEO of a successful business Michèle’s brand of power is self-evident. What makes this even more obvious is the vulnerability that seeps through her tough businesswoman bravado when Michèle unable to assert her authority. Her “none too bright” son and elderly mother seem to be at once the most stubbornly independent, and monetarily dependent, of those orbiting around her center of gravity. Verhoeven conducts every subplot, conflict and plight around Michèle, perhaps to remind us how trapped by influence she’s become, how every bit of stress and nuisance surrounding her finds a way into her life, and ultimately how much more boring power becomes when the people around you utterly lack it. What happens on one of Michèle’s languid, uneventful days at home is a scene shocking enough to make the theatre audience around me shriek in utter disbelief: the rapist, clad in all black, returns, hellbent on repeating their previous liaison.
There’s nothing overtly “designed” in Elle—everything in the film feels quite natural and undetermined—but this scene, coming right at the cusp of Michèle’s boredom, feels openly and disturbingly purposeful. Verhoeven certainly gets a reactionary effect with these scenes (they’re well-handled and frightening), but here he starts to tread on more dangerous grounds, and where the movie’s true identity seems to unfold. What Michèle’s rapist gets out of his evil acts is obvious, a sickening sense of sexual gratification, but I think it’s what Michèle gets out of them that interests Verhoeven more, and what turns out to be the far more complex power-play.
I’d be hard-pressed to describe these moments as “empowering”, rape is supposed to be doing the opposite, but the pungent quasi-romance (and toxic interdependence) that develops between Michèle and her “rapist” at first glance looks and feels so bizarre, and offensive, that the only appropriate reaction is to shun it on reflex; but of course closer examinations will concede that there’s something deeper and more cynical at play. The mutual dependency between Michèle and her rapist is a bare bones, white-knuckle examination on the intrapersonal relationship that exists between our rational and impulsive mind. Note how the rapist acts on instinctual and empty-headed lust, while Michèle acts on it with a tactical and suggestive cognizance.
Early in the film we learn about the types of video games Michèle deals in; ultraviolent and ultrasexual computer games which seem to fetishize lovecraftian horror to a pornographic art form. This detail in the film is crucial because as a culture, art-forms such as video games have worked to produce some of the most wildly accepted depictions of hypersexualized wish-fulfillment in mainstream society. Michèle’s power-play with her rapist is empowering because it’s about her taking control of these desires (and making them apart of her identity).
Verhoeven likes to dabble in the type of animal lust that seem perversely chained to our psyches. Mining every facet of our perversions for compelling drama, he reminds us why his films are so fascinating even in spite their stylistic bluster. I can go on and on in endless detail about the specifics of each scene and what makes them work, but what it ultimately comes down to is the fact that Paul Verhoeven has restructured how to format characters and drama in a way that’s not only vivid and stimulating, but thoroughly original. He captures all of it with an unsettling blend of humorous and dramatic flair, intent on redefining how we respond to a character’s sympathies and emotions.