Elle opens with a woman being raped on the floor of her home by an intruder wearing a ski mask. The sole witness is a cat, who watches silently. Afterwards, the woman, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), sweeps up the broken glass around her into a dustpan and disposes of her clothes. She goes to dinner with her adult son. She sleeps that night while holding a hammer. The next morning, she goes into her office as if nothing happened.
In a film by pretty much any other filmmaker, you might think that this opening shot of brutality, followed by a lack of acknowledgement, would be used to bring up other issues. But Elle is the work of Paul Verhoeven, whose work from his origins with Dutch film through his breakouts while working in Hollywood (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls) have always shown a tendency to blend satire with deliberate excesses of sex and violence. And Elle is in keeping with Verhoeven’s work – it’s challenging material, because it’s not just watchable – it’s downright funny at times, and that’s not something we associate with films that include heavy subjects like rape.
Verhoeven doesn’t make it easy. Even though the subject matter fits in with Verhoeven’s previous work, Elle is visually a departure for the director. There’s an arthouse aesthetic that he’s adopted for this film, which takes place in Paris around Christmastime. Elle visually exudes class, which may be the first time that could ever be said about a Verhoeven film. It works to the film’s advantage, though. The look of a prestige picture can lure an audience into a certain feeling of familiarity, which Elle then takes to surprise audiences repeatedly over the course of its runtime.
“Repeatedly” may be an understatement. Elle constantly veers in unexpected directions. Michèle is the CEO of a video game company, and she works to motivate her team of designers and programmers to make their new game more violent. Her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) is trying to pitch her an idea for a game about cyborg dog slaves. Her mother (Judith Magre) lives with a gigolo, while her father, a notorious serial killer, is up for parole again. Michèle fantasizes about what she wants to do to her rapist repeatedly, before finding out his identity roughly halfway through the film.
Michèle is at the center of the narrative, and one of the most intriguing elements to the whole film is how she manages to embody what are normally considered negative stereotypes about women. As a boss, she’s openly a bitch. She’s vocal in her disapproval of her son’s life, and she’s clearly jealous when it comes to her ex. She’s sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also trying to seduce the married neighbor across the street, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). The film, though, makes this all work. It’s due in large part to the work of both Verhoeven and Huppert, who turns in a masterclass in performance. In their hands, they’ve created a character who manages to capably strike back at anyone who would think of her as out of control.
Elle also manages to weave in a number of subplots involving Michèle that do little more than flesh out her world, rarely even overlapping, but somehow all working to help us understand exactly who this woman is. And these things aren’t always pleasant. If anything, they’re often quite repugnant. But Verhoeven isn’t interested at all in the idea of saying that Michèle deserves to be raped, or that the fantasies in which she later indulges can’t mean that she’s not traumatized by related events. Elle is a challenging film, and it’s certainly not for everyone. For those who will give it a chance, though, that challenge can be rewarding.