Paul Verhoeven is nothing if not overt. The traumatic opening scene of Elle features a pivotal moment that defines and sets up the rest of the film. It is also a warning.
Neither for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit, in his new feature, Verhoeven follows a confident, sexually active woman Michèle (Isabella Huppert), who is the victim of rape. As her further troubling past is revealed, we learn why she won’t go to the police. As sexual liaisons are revealed, we learn why her reaction to the rape isn’t exactly what we expect. And for Verhoeven, mixing in dry humour, satiric observations, and an uncanny balance of the horrid and the amusing will also unnerve the audience.
It may also not be the best experience if you’re a sensitive, superior-feeling male. The men in the films are parts stupid, naive, insecure, inexperienced, possessive, violent, and weak. Michèle’s ex-husband has a new young bride to compensate his inferior sense of masculinity. Her moronic son is manipulated by a beautiful partner seeking a baby. Her lover is cheating on his wife, a woman who also happens to be her best friend and business partner. Her clean-cut neighbour obeys his pious wife’s directives. The staff at her video game company – she is the boss – is naturally mostly male, and one employee adores her, while also threatens her.
Oh, her mother is intertwined with an attractive and crafty escort.
These relationships form tense, fascinating, funny, tragic moments in this whirlwind of a film. Verhoeven is always on the nose, but he sure keeps you unsettled and off-balanced. While the masked criminal of the beginning is eventually revealed, it’s less about who did it, then it is about the fact that there are so many men in this world that could. And Michèle is no shrinking violet, yet trauma affects her like any other, just not in the way we are led to believe is common.
That is to say that Verhoeven, unlike most men who would helm a movie about sexual assault and the aftermath, allows the woman of the film to be in charge and make her own decisions. She doesn’t go on a bloody quest for revenge, or fight against all those that may blame her or doubt her. Instead, Elle is a more deep-rooted exercise in psychology.
A challenging, triggering watch, Elle has smart comments to make about sex, sexism, and relations, though there will be audiences, like the men in this film, who have no idea what’s happening. Or worse: think they do.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 11/18/2016
- Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
- Starring: Alice Isaaz, Anne Consigny, Arthur Mazet, Charles Berling, Christian Berkel, Hugo Conzelmann, Isabelle Huppert, Jonas Bloquet, Judith Magre, Laurent Lafitte, Lucas Prisor, Raphaël L Lenglet, Stéphane Bak, Vimala Pons, Virginie Efira
- Written by: David Burke