Profoundly revealing about the darkest corners of what makes us human with a disturbing dash of humor, Elle is the kind of movie only Dutch director Paul Verhoeven could make. With an ingeniously rendered script by David Birke based on the novel by Philippe Djian, the film, Verhoeven’s 16th, touches on people’s tendency to pass judgment in a manner that should leave no one’s conscience clean. Often unfairly written off as a perverted old man, the director of Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), here seems to say: so are you. It’s innate and unshakable. If you aren’t, you aren’t human. That this complicated idea comes across so breezy and fluidly speaks to the filmmaker’s incredible talent.
Elle opens with the sounds of a brutal rape against a pitch black screen and the gloomy music of composer Anne Dudley. Then all we see is the aftermath. Poor Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), nipple exposed and pantyhose in ruin is surrounded by the debris of the china heard crashing against the opening credits. She is left to collect herself, alone, her cat walking away disinterested. Then it’s off to take a bubble bath — featuring a disturbing detail of blood — before she places an order for sushi over the phone. Already this movie forces the viewer to go against the grain of easy logic, as you wait for her to call the police. She never does.
It won’t be the only time we see this rape. It will return in more vivid, startling fashion later on, as if to assault audience. It’s as if Verhoeven wants to rattle the audience while denying catharsis, as the mystery of the masked man who commits the act and Michèle’s seeming inaction for help from officials grows both confounding and intriguing. It’s a testament to Huppert’s skills as a performer that she never makes Michèle feel like a helpless victim. Instead, Michèle is the kind to upgrade her mace and buy a hand axe to boot. It’s both funny and compelling, and there’s hardly an actress who can pull that tightrope walk off as well as Huppert. Verhoeven can be quite over-the-top and confrontational, and he has never had a more perfect vessel than Huppert, who can humanize with acting that’s deadpan and genuine to a more complex human being. She capably strings along the film’s mystery with an unequivocal authenticity that draws the audience in, carrying the film’s intrigue with a heaping of soul.
The nonchalance toward the rape is countered by Michèle’s resourcefulness, as she independently investigates who might be behind the mask. Like the essential quality of the rape, the film is rich with subplots, including Michèle’s son (Jonas Bloquet), a loser who can’t keep a job at a fast food restaurant and counts on her to buy him an apartment to move into with his pushy pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz). Meanwhile, Michèle can’t get over the behavior of her extreme cougar mother (Judith Magre), who has a boyfriend her grandson’s age. Michèle also co-heads a video game development studio with her best friend (Anne Consigny) featuring a crew of shady dudes with their own secrets. Then there’s that polite Christian couple (Virginie Efira and Laurent Lafitte), geared up to set up their life-sized nativity for Christmas, across the street from Michèle’s house.
The specter of a rapist on the loose hovers over all this comparatively tame strife. There’s also more to know about Michèle’s past, which is revealed in tantalizing bits, as the movie suspensefully progresses on her lack of practical action. Even when her past comes to light, there is yet another rich, decidedly ambiguous reveal that speaks to a nature that can hardly be recognized among family, much less in polite company. The puzzle box of the story harbors a shimmering, stark truth that many might find difficult to find acceptable but, deep inside, we know to be undeniably understandable.
Verhoeven has created an unequivocal masterpiece in storytelling while taking on a dark theme. The film has a particular sense of unfolding that misdirects the audience’s judgement throughout. There are small, early scenes that speak to Michèle’s mysterious back story and seem confounding to the yet-to-be-informed audience. In one scene, she is eating alone at a cafeteria. Then a woman walks past, dumps the remains of her meal into Michèle’s lap and calls her “scum.” In a later scene, Michèle backs into a car while parallel parking and destroys its front bumper. She lets out an inauthentic, “Oh!” (the original title of the book on which the movie is based). This is a complex character with more to reveal, as the punchline to that incident comes a little bit later.
All the mysteries come to light eventually, but on a deeper level, the film touches on big questions like what makes for true justice when you are burdened by regret (this is reference to another subplot not worth spoiling but has resonance in the film’s superficial action). What Elle shows us is that people are complicated, twisted and diabolical at times, but they are also interesting. It also uses a rather extreme set of circumstances to show how it can be scary to really know someone, yet to accept them in spite of this knowledge. This is love.
In Elle, characters go down such dark paths, but deep inside, though one may not want to admit it, one will understand. These aren’t movie characters presented for us to judge to make us feel better about ourselves when the house lights come up. The movie makes the viewer complicit and forces one to examine a human nature deep inside all of us that many would prefer not to acknowledge, be they shortcomings, regrets or perversions. The film builds to a triumphant kicker of an ending that includes the line, “He was a good man but a tortured soul.” That we can accept it as genuine and honest speaks to the skills of a brilliant filmmaker but also what’s inherent in us all.