Elle is the sensational new thriller from Paul Verhoeven, and his first major film in a decade. Starring an outstanding Isabelle Huppert, this French film is not an erotic thriller, like the Dutch director’s infamous Basic Instinct. Instead, it’s a gripping film about a businesswoman’s complex response to being raped. From the opening shot of her cat watching the horrific event unfold, you know you’re in for a typically audacious film from a vastly under-appreciated director.
Verhoeven is best known for directing bombastic sci-fi/action classics like Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. Rather like the work of Douglas Sirk in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Verhoeven’s films were written off as lowbrow trash in their day, only for their artful, cutting satire to be appreciated later. He creates discomfort in his audience by playing with cinematic elements many take for granted. His incredibly glossy films use deliberately gratuitous sex and violence to comment on the dark undercurrent of both American cinema and society. Even Showgirls, a popular contender for the worst film ever made, has been re-evaluated by critics and is appreciated by arthouse favourites like Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Rivette.
While his last American film, Hollow Man, proved to be a hit, Verhoeven felt his films were losing his personal touch, and that Hollow Man could just as easily have been made by some other director. He retreated to Europe to make Black Book, a Second World War thriller that became the most successful Dutch film ever made. After he failed to find an American star who would play the challenging lead role in Elle, and having failed to secure American production money, the film ended up being produced in France.
Huppert is superb as Michèle, and was rightly nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year. Despite her character’s traumatic childhood and the rape that begins the film, Huppert avoids melodramatic affectations and self-pity. Playing the character with deadpan brilliance, she’s often very funny in her aloof interactions with other characters. Her character’s strength draws the audience in. You become engrossed with intimate private moments that become increasingly transgressive and unsettling as the film progresses.