Paul Verhoeven certainly loves courting controversy, and in a year’s time he’ll still be courting controversy as a rare octogenarian filmmaker (rare enough that there are octogenarian filmmakers who aren’t Clint Eastwood, rarer still that there are ones still fanning the flames of outrage).
I didn’t find myself outraged by Elle, though, I suspect mainly because I was constantly aware of how calculated its provocative elements are; in a way, this is as precisely designed to elicit a response as his earlier Basic Instinct (with which it very loosely shares a genre bracket), with streaks of black humour and irreverence running through subject matter that usually (rightly) elicits the most respectful and cautious treatment.
Isabelle Huppert is Michele Leblanc, who in the opening scene is raped by a ski mask-wearing intruder but reacts not in the manner of the traumatised, but rather as if this is just another incident in the daily mix of events both pleasant and unpleasant (she proceeds to have a normal evening’s dinner with her son). We initially suspect her blasé response is over-compensation, putting on a composed demeanour, as do her friends when she eventually tells them (following the second incident, which she doesn’t mention).
But there’s evidently more going on within her psyche, a steeliness that set in during childhood after being associated with the crimes of her father (locked up after going on a killing spree and now refused parole). We even wonder if she too might tend towards the sociopathic, but then she cares for a tiny bird her cat has been mauling, which would seem to rule that out (a reading has been presented that she’s a sociopath because she doesn’t respond to the rape, even that she was the killer, not her father, although that feels like a little too much like the kind of schematic twist – of the Basic Instinct variety – that would fully immerse the picture in the genre landscape Verhoeven appears to be trying to avoid, loose mechanisms aside).
Michele’s job as the producer of computer games involves her unemotionally instructing an aggressive, headstrong male programmer on upping elements of sexual violence and violation. Meanwhile, she’s unscrupulously conducting an affair with her best friend’s husband (her friend is also her business partner) and flirting with her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). This, while expressing contempt for the personal choices of her son Vincent (his girlfriend’s baby clearly isn’t his) and mother Irene (announcing she is going to marry someone half her age). And then, when she learns the identity of her rapist (her neighbour), she responds by continuing the liaison as a particularly dangerous game.
Which is Verhoeven’s film, a dangerous game setting out its store in dangerous territory. It’s also as confidently, boldly engrossing as anything he’s done. The very positing of an anti-traumatised protagonist is one thing, but in staging this tale, Verhoeven utilises tools very much of the thriller genre. There’s a mystery throughout – who is the rapist; is he the one superimposing her face on the video game? – with liberal red herrings dropped into the plot.
You might – legitimately – argue the whole premise of Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke’s project (adapted from Oh… by Phillipe Dijan) is irresponsible, but you might equally conclude it’s unlikely anyone who might misinterpret it as undermining the seriousness of the subject would be going near an art movie like this anyway. Notably, the picture was originally intended for a US shoot, but the problems finding an American lead willing to take the part nixed the idea.
Verhoeven commented that, if filmed there, its content would have pushed it (even) more towards Basic Instinct and “a lot of the things that are important to the movie would probably have been diminished. By bringing it more into a thriller direction, I think it would have lost everything. It would probably have been banal and transparent”. And it would probably also have unequivocally crossed the line in the subject it is exploring.
Huppert portrays Michele with subtle gradations; so many of her choices are unsympathetic, or outright conflicting (when she calls Patrick after hitting a deer and crashing her car), and yet in many of them (be they in respect of her son, lover or mother) we can readily appreciate them. She admits her liaison to her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) in the most incautious of arenas (“Because I don’t want to lie any more”), but her motive appears genuine, and she is fortunate that Anna proves the most forgiving of companions.
Huppert suggested, “Obviously, the movie’s about a woman, But it’s also about men, you know, and the men are sort of fading figures, very weak, quite fragile. So it’s really about the empowerment of a woman”. Indeed, one of the most telling moments comes at the end, when son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), an emotional doorstop to a manipulative and scolding partner Josie (Alice Isaaz) throughout, is seen emboldened and confident, reconciled with her after their separation, and there’s no doubting this change has come through the act of killing, of asserting his primal masculine instinct (some readings have Vincent as the initial rapist, but that seems again, a bit too twisty).
The other men are equally displaced, from her ex-husband (Charles Berling) having an affair with a young yoga instructor (who ends it with him) to her partner’s other half (Christian Berkel), jealous of Michele’s flirtations and unwilling to accept the end of the affair. As for the rapist, his response to Michele probing his motivation is simply “It was necessary”; he can be aroused only by such aberrant behaviour, and since his sense of sexual identity is all-consuming, he considers it necessary.
The picture does leave question marks in terms of plot, and that can be problematic if they threaten to overwhelm those that ought to hold sway thematically or in terms of character. Some are merely intriguing, such as how much Patrick’s wife knew (“I’m so glad you could give him what he needed” isn’t exactly her admitting she knew he was a rapist, but it could certainly be read that way).
Others, such as how her son came to be back home to kill Patrick, are more preoccupying (she didn’t appear to ask him, so it doesn’t look like they conspired, as Patrick’s “Why?” might suggest, but it feels like a stretch to suggest he was lifting wine at the party in order to drug his mother).
It should also be emphasised that Elle is shot through with humorous incident, not least a dinner party from hell that takes in everything from Michelle’s mother (Judith Magre) announcing her engagement, to Patrick’s devout wife (Virginie Efira) asking to put the Mass on against a most unreligious backdrop. The ashes sequence is also very funny.
Verhoeven and Birke might be accused of irresponsibly fuelling the tendency to the patriarchal gaze, but that would be to ignore Huppert’s input in the picture. And conversely, Verhoeven’s never been one to lead a cause, but rather takes an idiosyncratic path; it’s self-evident this isn’t a feminist film, as some would claim, but it’s easier to define Elle by how difficult it is to pigeonhole than what it may or may not be saying.
Certainly, if some of the theories expounded regarding its possible twists are in the ballpark of the authors’ intentions, I’d argue that makes it a less interesting picture, and one consequently more culpable in terms of simply being transgressive for the sake of it. So I’ll give the mad Dutchman benefit of the doubt on that score. One thing is abundantly clear; he’s lost none of his cinematic touch.