Paul Verhoeven is nothing if not overt. The traumatic opening scene of Elle features a pivotal moment that defines the rest of the film. It is also a warning.
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 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. Her ex-husband has a new young bride; her son is manipulated by a beautiful girl seeking a baby; her lover is cheating on his wife (her best friend); her clean-cut neighbour obeys his wife’s directives; the staff at her video game company is naturally mostly male. One adores, another threatens.
Oh, her mother is intertwined with an attractive 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. 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.