Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) seems like the ideal powerful woman. She’s the pioneering head of a video game company. She lives in a big home and dictates everything in her life on her terms—who she sleeps with, what she eats, how much she wants to work, and who she wants to bestow kindness upon. However, one night a masked assailant rapes her in her home. This upsets her domestic equilibrium and sends her into a spiral of paranoia, revenge, and psychosexual perversion.
Elle is as provocative as you’d expect from a Paul Verhoeven film. It starts with the image of a cat watching dispassionately as his owner, Michèle, is brutally raped. The scene is appalling, to say the least, and sets the template for the character portrait of a cunning, confused manipulator that is to follow. It also signals the creator’s dispassionate attitude towards the subject matter. Rape is terrifying and its artistic depiction carries with it many social and psychological ramifications. However, Verhoeven doesn’t care about the connotations of the subject matter. He instead uses it as a means of exploring violent desire and personal guilt. None of this should surprise us from the man who made Basic Instinct and Showgirls, but if Elle’s subject matter and artistic approach sound horrid to you, I’d recommend steering clear.
Despite the glowing reviews out of Cannes and TIFF, Elle is no more than tasteful trash. It has a lurid narrative concept and a typically great performance from Isabelle Huppert, but it’s psychologically obvious. Huppert makes us believe the tired emotional clichés that her character acts out over the narrative. That doesn’t mean the character revelations are not cliché. A rape narrative descending into an examination of the survivor’s secret enjoyment of assault is at best old hat for movies of this sort, and at worst blatantly destructive storytelling. Verhoeven should provoke in newer, more cunning ways.
Still, this is an entertaining film. The camera is fluid and the performers are all operating on Verhoeven’s wavelength. It’s not as vulgar as Verhoeven’s past work, but the formal style is mere trappings. Elle is not art cinema. It’s a slick little examination of immoral people made to seem profound by one of cinema’s best actresses.