Paul Verhoeven has made an entire career out of being a provocateur, most notoriously with 1992’s Basic Instinct. His best work fearlessly pushes the audience to uncomfortable places, and Elle, his first feature film in 10 years, finds Verhoeven at his most aggressively traumatic from its upsetting opening scene. This film’s controversial subject matter could have sent it completely off the rails, but Verhoeven steers things admirably, balancing deeply troubling subject matter with surprisingly sharp black comedy to create a work of phenomenal complexity.
Elle opens mercilessly, with Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) in the midst of a brutal sexual assault in her home. Once the ski-masked rapist flees, Michèle simply sweeps up the broken glass, takes a bath, and orders takeout, staunchly refusing to let this event disrupt her life. However, once it becomes clear that the attack was far from random and another one may be coming, she begins to wonder if any of the various men in her life may be responsible.
That description paints Elle as a simple rape-revenge tale, but Verhoeven is interested in something much more complicated and tough to swallow here, making a film that’s nearly impossible to unpack after a single viewing. Elle functions as an engrossing character study, a compelling whodunit, and an insightful social commentary all at once, a feat made all the more impressive by this being Verhoeven’s first French-language film.
Much of this complexity stems from Michèle, who is terrifically played by Isabelle Huppert. It’s rare that a film about a woman well into middle age lends her so many layers, allowing her to display a refined sexuality alongside recovery from horrific sexual trauma, but this is an atypically intelligent examination of femininity that refuses to allow its character to become a one-dimensional victim. Huppert is stupendous in the role, and while Michèle occasionally comes across as emotionless, Huppert showcases a carefully cultivated hardness that feels wholly authentic and earned. Even at a Fantastic Fest that’s featured at least half a dozen memorable leading ladies, Huppert’s work here stands out.
The rest of the ensemble is equally compelling, especially the various men in Michèle’s life, each of whom is disappointing. There’s an ex-husband, a son, a seductive neighbor, a hostile coworker, and her best friend’s husband who Michèle is having an affair with; Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke make each of these characters dramatically intriguing, while still effectively mining them for comedic punchlines. Still, this is a film that undoubtedly belongs to the women, and the strongest supporting performance comes from Anne Consigny, who strikes a marvelous contrast as Michèle’s aforementioned best friend and business partner, emanating a warmth and openness that only accentuates the power of Huppert’s work.
The depth beneath Elle’s placid surface is vast and demanding of repeat viewings, but Verhoeven’s storytelling is impressively elegant. His characters share decades of history between them, the details of which are teased out with patience and skill. Michèle’s past in particular is a matter of national notoriety, gracefully sketched throughout the film until she comes clean to another character, and her manner of doing so is fascinating, played as equal parts seduction and intimidation. Most importantly, it feels entirely natural to the story, a testament to Verhoeven’s sleek and intriguing storytelling throughout. Even when a few of Elle’s numerous plot threads come to disjointed conclusions, the film’s thematic purpose is so hefty that it excuses minor narrative shortcomings.
Elle is a daring and disturbing cinematic work, and not in the usual blood-splattered flavor that Fantastic Fest usually traffics in. This is a film that plunges headlong into potentially controversial waters, dealing with the consequences of rape in complex and unusual ways that are made all the more troubling by the male director and screenwriter. However, Elle is more of a riveting character study than an all-encompassing social statement, and while it’s sure to inspire its fair share of angry headlines, it’s the kind of intellectually bold and risky film that reminds us what a spectacular director Paul Verhoeven can be.