When you think of movies that roar out of the starting gate with a brutal act of sexual violence, you don’t predict the victim will casually sweep up the debris from the attack, take a relaxing bubble bath and mention it in passing to her swank dinner companions before ordering.
Then again, when you think of films made by that perverse, cynical provocateur Paul Verhoeven, you don’t expect a standard-issue woman-in-peril potboiler, either.
“Elle” is the latest from the maker of the sci-fi satires “Robocop,” “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers,” the erotic mystery “Basic Instinct” and the wartime dramas “Soldier of Orange” and “Black Book.” It is as carnally explicit, blood-soaked, politically incorrect and creatively lavish as his earlier works. The difference is that this free-flowing, amoral thrill ride is, above all, a woman’s picture.
The eternally impressive Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle, the confident, prosperous and rather vain CEO of a French video game company. She’s being brutally raped at her luxurious home by a masked prowler literally the moment the movie begins. She doesn’t react in the way we expect. Much like her cat, which watches the attack with coldly glittering eyes, Michèle handles her attack with unnerving indifference. And why not? She’s familiar with depravity.
The disturbing new video game her firm is developing resembles frenzied Asian tentacle smut, which she critiques with comments like, “The orgasmic seizures must be more exaggerated” and, “When a player kills, he has to feel blood on his hands.”
She’s a player of power games herself, by necessity. Before selling millennials the computer kinks they crave, she suffered unspeakable childhood abuse from her father, who has spent the past 40 years in prison for his crimes.
Michèle is a fluid, complex character, dry and sarcastic, aloof and cruel, empowered and dangerous, seductive and dismissive. The film goes deep into her longings and desires, twisted by trauma and having to operate inside the social constraints of being a woman. She’s a rare mixed breed, a sympathetic, amoral femme fatale.
Michèle’s world is developed through multiple subplots. We meet her egocentric mother preparing to wed a much younger male escort, her dimwitted but loving son who believes that his slutty girlfriend is carrying his baby, and work colleagues and neighbors who admire or resent her suave self-control. She works hidden sabotage against her ex-husband’s current romance, while conducting affairs at the expense of her longtime friends. The film is bitterly funny in some of these matters, adding macabre comedy to the mix.
The movie follows her personal and professional lives in the aftermath of her rape. I won’t reveal how many times her door is forced open except to say that it becomes a part of her fantasies. Michèle conceals the facts from the police, buying self-defense weapons and investigating possible suspects working at her company. Will murder(s) be committed? Put this person in this situation and anything can happen. And as for the rapist, well, the plot thickens.
Huppert, the busiest major actress of her generation, has starred repeatedly for Claude Chabrol, the French Hitchcock. Here Verhoeven echoes that master’s flair for ruthless, relentless character-rich suspense. He guides us to look beyond the crimes people commit so that we can consider their personalities.
“Elle” is a mysterious puzzle, not mainly about whodunit plot points, but the far more titillating question of who people truly are and what they’re capable of.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling.
Director: Paul Verhoeven.
Running time: 2:10.
Rated: R, for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity and language.
Note: In subtitled French.