“I was assaulted at home. I guess I was raped.”
Paul Verhoeven returns with perhaps his most provocative film yet - quite a feat considering his filmography includes Basic Instinct and Robocop. Marketed as a 'rape-revenge thriller', this tag has been rather misleading considering that Elle is pure character study and more an enticing snowglobe that allows the brilliant Isabelle Huppert to work her magic.
The film, based upon the celebrated novel Oh by Philippe Dijan, centres on the character of Michèle Leblanc, the brittle and uncompromising CEO of a Video Game development company that produces some highly graphic content for its customers. Verhoeven shows a large number of sides to Michèle a cold entrepreneur, protective but distant mother, tired daughter, hungry lover, embittered ex-wife, a methodical secret-keeper, and most vitally someone who is victimised but is not a victim in the slightest. The catalyst for the plot is the fact Michèle is violently attacked in her own home by a masked assailant and brutally raped - but what is fascinating is her meticulous and detached response, followed by a transgressive desire.
A text that would be highly problematic for some feminists is saved from highly uncomfortable issues by perfectly judged humour and sympathy, but above all else a supreme tour de force performance from Isabelle Huppert. The French actress and Michael Haneke's muse is on fire here as this bold and uncompromising figure - she is strong, vulnerable, admirable and unsympathetic all at once - but we are with her every step of the way. The rest of the cast are terrific but are all in Huppert's orbit and that seems to be the way Verhoeven likes it.
Verhoeven adds a surprising level of comedy at a typically grave tale. Michèle's cutting encounters with her terrible prospective daughter-in-law, to her surprising treatment of an employee misbehaving, and also her dealings with her ex-husband's new squeeze. A dinner party she throws encapsulates much of the humour, eroticism, and darkness that the film so delicately balances.
This is not to the detriment or mishandling of the rape in the film. The scenes that are scattered throughout and examine Michèle's being brutally sexual assaulted are horrifying, visceral and uncompromising. However, Michèle's handling of this is not that of passive victim or a vengeful heroine. She is a smart and meticulous woman who is always ready to try something daring. The scenes surrounding Michèle's past help us to understand her but, once again, this mistreatment of her does not define her. Michèle is not perfect either - she encourages sexual violence in her games; an interesting parallel to her own journey in the film and making the text entirely not straightforward.
Elle defies genre: it mixes humour, horror, thrills and melodrama, but above all else it is a slice of the life of Michèle Leblanc, one of the most interesting female characters in cinema for a long time. Verhoeven certainly hasn't lost his touch in this daringly original film, but Isabelle Huppert even more so proves her continued desire to create surprise and awe with her magnetic screen presence. Unmissable stuff - but certainly won't be for everyone.