The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it. The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse.
Elle is as entertaining as any film Verhoeven has made, which might seem like an odd thing to say about a movie that conjures moments from a brutal rape, abruptly and repeatedly, in flashbacks and dream sequences. Those scenes are hard to take, but I think necessarily so. They’re balanced by a tour de force performance by Isabelle Huppert as Michéle, the woman who gets up after being raped, wipes the blood off, sweeps up the broken glass, and goes about her business almost as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “I fell off my bike,” she demurs, explaining away the bruise around one eye. Huppert is not just stoic in the face of her violation; there is something inhuman about her reaction. Like the characters in the videogames created at the digital studio she heads up, her post-traumatic behavior is straight out of the uncanny valley.
It’s also quietly, wickedly hilarious. Empathetic viewers will intuit that there is no “right” way to recover from a rape and will be in no hurry to judge Michéle, which gives Verhoeven and Huppert the license they need to develop her character. The effect is actually extraordinary. The obscenity of the rape scene — those noises, the unalloyed violence of it, Huppert’s exposed breast as she lays on the floor recovering —forces an intimacy with the character. When it becomes clear that she’s behaving badly — adultery, misanthropy, property damage and more — the pleasurable sensation evoked is conspiratorial. We know what she’s been through, we identify with her experience of the world, and there’s something madly liberating in her attitude, which at first seems to boil down to fuck this shit. As it turns out, Michele is petty and mean but also incredibly smart and self-possessed, and that means Elle is often laugh-out-loud funny, thanks largely to Huppert’s reliably caustic delivery.
As the film progresses, it does become clear that she is troubled by the attack. She takes an interest in weapons, shopping for axes and training to fire a handgun. And she begins evaluating the people around her — her husband, the disgruntled digital artist at her office, that kindly new neighbor across the way — as suspects. And so Elle resembles not just a comedy of manners, but also a rape-revenge movie. But Michele’s character is complicated by a dark family history that places her in the public eye, and may help explain behavior that becomes increasingly bizarre as the film progresses. It also puts Elle in that category of films that feature male writers and directors scrutinizing the choices and behavior of badly damaged women. As immaculate as Huppert’s performance is, the film feels more predetermined and contrived as it progresses, and her character seems smaller, not grander, as the film ambles toward its climax, then dawdles in the aftermath. It’s provocative, of course, for the film to suggest that Michéle’s hentai-inspired videogame products are, essentially, contributors to the rape culture of feminist theory. It’s downright ostentatious to intimate, as it eventually does, that she’s turned on by her own violation. And forget about trying to track her character’s motivation. Some of the choices Michéle makes in the late going come off as puzzling, if not inexplicable. Lucky for Verhoeven, Huppert is one of the only actors alive who could pull this off. Dark places? She knows them.