To read previous VIFF coverage, click here.
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. Elle is something that’s at once mesmerizing and paralyzing to behold.
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 plain 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 stubborn and submissive of those orbiting in her center of gravity. Verhoeven conducts every subplot, conflict and plight around Michèle, perhaps to indicate how trapped by influence she’s become, how every bit of stress and nuisance surrounding her finds a way into her life. What happens on one of Michèle’s languid, uneventful days at home is a scene shocking enough to make the audience theatre I sat with shriek in disbelief (minor spoilers): the rapist, clad in all black, returns, hellbent on repeating what happened last time.
There’s nothing overtly “designed” in Elle—it all feels quite natural and undetermined—but this scene, coming right at the cusp of Michèle’s malaise, feels openly predetermined. 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, and what turns out to be the far more complex (and empowering) type of gratification.
Early in the film it’s established what type 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. Elle dabbles in the type of wanton lusts that seem perversely chained to our psyches. Mining every facet of our perversions for compelling drama, Verhoeven reminds us why his film so fascinating despite their stylistic bluster. By emphasizing the impulses of Michèle’s perversions, Verhoeven inspects how “fetishes” in general might help further understand how people might function internally, how our emotions are fundamentally linked to these needs and how by denying and indulging in them results in something innately emotional.
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.