Paul Verhoeven has always been a filmmaker who’s delighted in challenging and even offending audiences whenever possible (if the term “trigger” had been popular in the 1980s, he’d have been a pioneer there too). Whether his career has been elevating violent pulp into artful satire, as with the original RoboCop and Total Recall films, or pushing movie star vehicles into the self-aware sewer, think Basic Instinct, he has long known how to leave a mark.
In recent years, the auteur has returned to European cinema where he’s dialed back the licentiousness and upped the prestige. And yet, in many ways, he remains the exact same storyteller, as seen in this year’s Elle where he revisits one of his favorite subjects: sexual violence. Or to be more specific, he has made a revenger’s dramedy-thriller that begins with Isabelle Huppert being brutally raped after a home invasion in a wide shot (but he’s sure to include close-ups later on during repeated flashbacks of the event). Already, the movie is the toast of the festival circuit with awards conversations aplenty.
I’m happy to be in the minority on this one.
Elle is a fashionably made and very well-acted piece of sensationalism that, in spite of a brilliant performance from Huppert, is no more truthful or genuinely thoughtful about its loaded subject matter than the far less postured Showgirls was 20 years ago. If this film is really some sort of daring high-wire act, as several reviews out of Cannes have suggested, then I suspect that when it opens in November, audiences will view the spectacle quite differently—like that of an enflamed acrobat plummeting with his burning hoop toward the earth, and nary a net or fire extinguisher in sight.
Presented with a deliberate air of sophistication, Elle is the story of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert) a middle-aged woman who lives with great Parisian dignity, but also an introverted sense of repression. When she was a child, her ultra-Catholic father turned into a mass murderer and had the 10-year-old Michèle help burn the clothes. After the fact, she has gone through life with a sense of hidden trauma and bitter tight-lipped graciousness despite being suspected as a demon by everyone in her childhood, including the police.
Now, with some success as a literary professor turned video game maker—her games also deal with unsubtle rape fantasies where heroines are transformed upon being penetrated by a handsy goblin sporting multiple phallic tentacles—she has prospered along with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). She’s also sleeping with Anna’s husband on the side (Christian Berkel), but Michèle feels as bad about that as the fact that her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is the quintessential cliché of a lazy, directionless Millennial who won’t stop asking for mommy to pay his rent while his girlfriend has another man’s baby and treats her prospective mother-in-law like dirt.
All of this surrounds Michèle’s day-to-day prior to being sexually assaulted, and all of it continues without pause afterward since she neither goes to the cops nor really even discusses it with her friends or family. Rather, she benignly accepts the apologies of sexual harassers at work while turning a blind eye to her masked attacker continuing to break into her house and leave explicit threats and other stains in her bedroom. But don’t worry, since she’ll eventually fight back this is supposedly a progressive and challenging fantasy about the layered facets and defenses of a modern French woman, right?
There are elements that work very well in Elle, not least of which is Huppert’s performance that upraises the material far better than it deserves. She is indeed a complicated character whose sense of self-loathing walks hand-in-hand with her unspoken but transparent disappointment in everyone she knows, save perhaps Anna. Cultured but lonely, fiercely intelligent yet internally isolated, she has plenty of elements for Huppert to play with great poise.
The movie often moves as well with the pace and structure of a traditional French comedy about upper middleclass lifestyles, with Michèle still being a good friend to her novelist ex-husband (Charles Berling), and suffering from knowing that both he and her aged mother are dating partners far younger than she is. There are vignettes about this world, including Christmas Eve dinner parties, funerals, and births, that each individually has a certain charm or amusement.
However, these elements being contrasted with the central thesis of a supposed cat-and-mouse mystery are far less clever than they are dishonest, creating a faux-sense of irony by underplaying its heavy material to grotesquely dismissive results.
The picture, directed by Verhoeven and written by David Birke (from a novel by Philippe Djian), is a woeful miscalculation by three men who try to turn a female character into a coded “male” hero (their stated intent) who takes action into her own hands while life goes by as per usual in the background. This undercuts any pretenses of repression or patriarchy harming Michèle’s psychology, or any potential reading about her believing she deserves abuse, and thereby robs the material of legitimate sincerity.
Instead, it just gleefully jumps into its taboos again and again, mistaking deeper levels of incredulous plotting as actual depth. In this vein, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too by eagerly exploiting a real-world horror and offering vengeful catharsis as an excuse. But unlike, say, when Quentin Tarantino has walked the same theoretical line in regards to Nazism or slavery (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained), he did so by displacing the topics in a distant historical context. He also knew not to shy away from the cruelty or terror of the subject matter he was embracing when the horrors of the Holocaust or bondage actually occurred.
The fact that Michèle’s compartmentalization of her abuse is treated as a comical affectation, and a source of repeated humor, bizarrely downplays the trauma of the can of worms that Verhoeven opens like a child who is kicking a beehive. Additionally, male writers presenting a woman who can scoff off with an eye-roll at an employee who’s created a pornographic parody of her that was shared around the office is as absurd as her stereotypical son… even though one gets the sense that the filmmakers might not be fully aware of that themselves.
Worst of all is that the overall mystery at the heart of Elle is no savvier than a Scooby-Doo plot, save that when this film unmasks its monster, it offers yet another plot turn that grimly confuses bad storytelling for an erotic twist.
In the end, Elle is a mess where many qualities are buried by a filmmaker who still likes to play in the mud while expecting us to pretend it’s a spring. Frankly this time, it isn’t worth the precipitous dive.
Elle opens in the U.S. on Nov. 11.