To sum up Paul Verhoeven’s latest film up in one word, it’s toothsome. More nuanced, unpredictable and slow-burning than the Dutch director’s American movies – RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and so on – it’s nevertheless as confrontational and blackly funny as anything he’s ever made.
Not that Elle provides obvious material for a black comedy. In its opening scene, well-to-do Parisian businesswoman Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is violently assaulted in her own house by a man wearing a ski mask. Evidently in shock, Michele picks herself up and carries on as though nothing’s happened; she clears up some broken crockery, calls a locksmith to secure the windows and doors, and orders takeaway sushi.
At first, you might think you’re in for some kind of mystery rape-revenge thriller with Elle, but it’s soon revealed to be far, far more than that. Based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, it’s above all a character piece – an exploration of a deeply unusual and fascinating central character. In an industry broadly dominated by men, Michele’s the co-founder of a videogame company which appears to specialise in big, violent action fantasies vaguely in the God Of War mode. When Michele casually opens up about her attack to her friends in a busy restaurant one evening, the suggestion that she should inform the police is immediately rejected. Michele, it seems, wants to deal with the situation in her own individual way.
As Michele begins to receive taunting messages from her attacker, Verhoeven’s movie threatens to fall into 90s-thriller territory – a belated return, perhaps, to the same ground as Basic Instinct. But like Michele, the film itself refuses to be pigeon-holed; the more we learn about its subject, the more we realise that her life is both mundane and full of absurd complications. On one hand, she’s a regular, divorced, middle-aged mother who disapproves of her son’s choice of girlfriend; on the other, she lusts after the married guy who lives over the road, occasionally caves into her business partner’s husband’s demands for sexual encounters, and has an awkward relationship with her randy mother, who’s shacked up with a man some 40 years her senior.
From beginning to end, Elle proves to be a masterclass in varying kinds of tension: the tension of a good, page-turning thriller; the awkward, toe-curling tension of a situation comedy; the tension of a drama driven entirely by its characters and their weird urges. There’s a touch of Michael Haneke’s movies about Elle, and not just because Huppert also happened to star in Haneke’s stunning drama, The Piano Teacher. The film’s shot with a chilly coolness, with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine providing Elle with some of the most elegant visuals in Verhoeven’s long career; there’s a similar coolness to the pace, and a deliciously tart quality to the humour and acting.
Above all, Elle is a master class in acting from Huppert. In a role which requires her presence in every scene, and requires her to run the gamut of emotions, it’s a peerless, fiercely intelligent performance. Everything about Michele rings true, even if her situation is entirely removed from our immediate experience; in some situations, she can be remote and downright mean; in others, her inner resolve and calculatedness makes her slightly terrifying; in still others, we desperately fear for her safety.
Michele isn’t always likeable, but she’s tough and courageous in a way that most of the other characters in the story aren’t. In her, Verhoeven may have found something of a creative muse. For the past few decades, Verhoeven’s sought to shock, confront and bemuse through his movies. Michele, by the same token, pushes her employees to put more visceral violence in the videogame they’re making. She flatly refuses to behave in a fashion society expects of women of her age and class. In short, she’s a rebel – which is why she’s such an endlessly fascinating character to watch.
Admittedly, Elle‘s disturbing subject matter and abrupt shifts in tone mean it won’t be for everyone, but for this writer, it ranks among Verhoeven’s very best movies. Dark, unsettling, blackly funny and thought-provoking, Elle‘s one of those films that, once seen, is difficult to forget. Even after all these years in the business, Verhoeven’s movies still have a vicious bite.
Elle is out now in UK cinemas.