In Paul Verhoeven’s latest movie, the difference between men and women is clear. The main female is strong, determined, independent, and resourceful. The men, meanwhile, show cowardness, naivete, idiocy, misunderstanding, among many other less than impressive traits.
While sitting down during the Toronto International Film Festival to promote his new movie, Verhoeven was asked what his thoughts on men were, and the witty, energetic Dutch director had a quick response.
“I have some good friends,” he said, and paused. There was laughter and he smirked, only half joking. Elle is after all a statement of female empowerment, but not one that movie audiences have come to know or expect. That is, the title character in the film, played impeccably by Isabelle Huppert, is layered and full of nuances, conflicts, and contemplation. Her motives aren’t always understand, and she is anything but simple. She is raped, and deals with the aftermath in her own manner.
The men, meanwhile, including her employees, ex-husband, son, neighbour, and friend, are especially flawed, and overall weak. “I’ve not the highest opinion of men. This movie accentuates female behaviour, all of them are basically stronger in than the men,” said Verhoeven, who cited the women in his family as ones who offer illuminating discussions and are themselves strong. “I’m a big fan of women. I’ve said so before, I’d prefer to have coffee with a woman than a beer with a man.”
Michèle, meanwhile, navigates these men in her life after the assault. And her response is what drew Verhoeven to the character and the story. “She’s not accepting compassion because she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim and feel like a victim,” he explained. “She is refusing to let that destroy her life.”
Verhoeven was set on making an American film as his latest project. He read the book Oh… by Philippe Dijan, and set out to make this film about a woman overcoming sexual assault, but make it in Hollywood. He soon realized there was no chance for that to happen right from the start. After all, as the film opens, she is raped. And then she takes a bath.
“We decided to make an American movie, this was not supposed to be French, and we went to an American scriptwriter, and then found out it was absolutely impossible in Los Angeles,” he said. “No actors of any name wanted to do it. It was an absolute no in the United States. I was forced to go back, in retrospect you can’t imagine perhaps it being an American movie. The total audacity.
“It’s good that it went this way, even that wasn’t the original intention.”
Verhoeven also commented on the way in which films are made in America versus in Europe. While the technical side of things is always the same, in Hollywood, he says, you’re at the mercy of many others as director.
In Europe, you’re the most important person. You don’t have to talk, you don’t have to explain, defend, why you want that scene, argue on what you should cut out, what’s not possible.”
So he is right: Elle couldn’t have been made American, but it’s better off. The decisions Michèle makes challenges audiences in ways unexplored and difficult to understand. She is our compelling heroine, complex and utterly compelling, even when she makes you uncomfortable.