Paul Verhoeven, the celebrated director of Basic Instinct, Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and many Dutch language films, has returned for his first film in 10 years with an expectedly provocative piece of cinema. Verhoeven is known for his use of ultra-violence, extreme sexuality, and heightened atmospheres. The weird thing about Elle is how it seems that no time has passed since he was making Sharon Stone seduce an audience of millions. In fact, if someone were to tell me that Elle was released in the early 90s, I’d almost believe them. Verhoeven’s latest is at times a throwback to the trashy explorations of our extremist culture and a controversial take on sexual assault and the effect it has on the people that have suffered through it. It’s safe to say that our director hasn’t tamed one bit.
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert, in another fantastic role) begins the movie while she is being sexually assaulted by a masked man in all black. After witnessing the man leave after the act is finished, Michèle acts rather calmly about the ordeal. She cleans her clothes, has a bath, but she doesn’t call the cops. In fact, Michèle goes about her life as if it didn’t happen. It isn’t until we learn of a past trauma and witness her own investigation to the incident that things feel really off. This wouldn’t work without another magnificent Isabelle Huppert performance.
Huppert’s performance is what keeps Elle (somewhat) grounded. Through all of Verhoeven’s eccentricities, Huppert manages to allow a humanity to flow through while not betraying the darkly comedic tone throughout the film. It’s a difficult balance to pull off in a film that’s exploring a victim of rape and their response to the incident, but I could just as easily say that Verhoeven doesn’t particularly care about the specifics of the incident. Huppert has described her character as post-feminist, and that actually seems fairly accurate. Elle is an outrageous and light-hearted landmine of a psychological thriller. This is a movie written and directed by men, about a woman, but with all the talent involved, it’s hard to deny the unique experience that’s in store.
It’s good to have an expectation going into this film about what it’s looking to explore. Don’t expect modern progressive gender politics. Elle does not care to appease the knee-jerkers who need to express their opinion without using thought. Elle has no immediate greater ambitions than to entertain (and it is immensely entertaining). But through Huppert, the audience can find a strong female character that is well-written and would not give a flying fuck about your think pieces about her. She is a woman that has dealt with too much shit in the male society to care how she is seen. It’s not difficult to see the parallels that Verhoeven probably connected to, being the one of the most controversial directors of all time. If this team of filmmakers has something to say, it’s to say that if you don’t like it, go tell somebody who cares.
I can’t completely endorse Elle as a home-run. There’s a nonsensical late third act twist that makes little sense, even when compared to the rest of the insane film. It almost goes against everything the film had been leading up to, but being familiar with the work of Verhoeven, it’s not the biggest surprise. It feels a little bloated at 130 minutes, but the storylines between her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and her husband are strong enough for me to have difficulty finding something to cut out. Elle never reaches the insane antics of his Hollywood films, but Verhoeven with the help of Huppert has made his most complex and narratively interesting film in 20 years. Let’s not wait 10 years for another film, Verhoeven.