Is Paul Verhoeven cinema’s most successful mimic? When he went to Hollywood for 1987’s RoboCop, the Dutch director integrated himself so well in his host culture that 1995’s showbiz melodrama Showgirls is still taken by many as foolhardy trash rather than a corrosive critique so intimate with its subject as to appear nearly—or in fact be—indistinguishable. After a return to his home country to make Black Book, one of the 2000s best thrillers and most devilishly twisted recreations of World War 2, and an experiment with a crowd-sourced screenplay in the unusual 2012 short feature Tricked, Verhoeven has changed host bodies yet again, this time to French cinema. Therefore, of course, he mimics the most perfect of French films: a thriller focused on sexual politics and starring Isabelle Huppert.
The premise of Elle, adapted from from Philippe Djian's book Oh..., has a horrible come-on: from the director of Basic Instinct, a new film where Huppert is raped—but will not tell the police! All true, yes, but the actual film spends most of its time clearly and simply laying out who Huppert's Michelle is, and the constellation of family, friends and co-workers around her. Survivor of an inconceivable crime perpetrated in her childhood by her father, each of Michelle’s relationships seem stained and contorted: unforgiving of her father, contemptuous of her aged mother and her new boy toy, barely tolerating her handsome but antsy and naive son, wry about her ex’s new fling with a yoga instructor, sleeping with her best friend and co-worker’s husband, at odds with the creative staff she leads at her video game company, and, above all, sexually intrigued by her married Catholic neighbor (Laurent Lafitte). Setting up all these people and Michelle’s attitude and relation with them takes some time, and often the script of Elle resembles the exposition-overdose of television pilots, a sense little alleviated by its rather drab, auburn look and offhand, handheld camerawork. Gone is the sinewy filmmaking Verhoeven was known for in Hollywood: chameleon-like, this is a film that looks utterly of the moment and of its host culture.
Elle opens on the sound of a breaking glass and the inscrutable eyes of a cat looking at the camera—in fact, looking at Michelle’s home invasion and rape—and for the most part, Elle plays out with a similarly ambiguous distance of observation. These people and this world seem like nothing remarkable without the dark and perverse context of the rape and the family crime that echoes behind it. We watch what Michelle does afterwards, how she looks, what she seems to be thinking, and how she acts, and this violation colors everything that comes before us. We know we’re following not only a rape victim, but someone whose past, body and spirit has been twisted in an incredible way from this trauma. (For an entire generation of moviegoers, Isabelle Huppert’s body seems to be the locus for all that is sexually perverse or traumatic in cinema.) Yet traces of the violence precede the event, most obviously the violent fantasy game Michelle’s company is putting the finishing touches on, and in her father’s unimaginable and notorious crime. We learn spare details of this mass killing, about which a television special spied in the film dryly remarks that “the question remains, as banal but chilling as ever: why?”—a remarkably accurate characterization of Elle as film.
Yet, as in all films by Paul Verhoeven, nothing is quite played straight, and this surprisingly restrained drama—for it is inaccurate, in fact, to call it a thriller—has small turns that skew its modest world to suggest even darker things. Whereas in the films of Claude Chabrol, which Elle somewhat resembles if not mimics, where a class satire of the French bourgeoisie undergirds suspense and perversion, Verhoeven's version of a French film locates mischievous ambiguity of sex and power among a network of friends, co-workers, and neighbors, treated with a comic touch that, as in the film's opening scene, can plunge into assaultive horror.
The personal priorities of each person—unscrupulous to the point of cheating, violation, and crime—create an imbalanced world of desires, risks and pain. Verhoeven keeps his cards close, but his sharp knife twists in unexpected ways: Michelle cannot report her rape because of the infamous guilt that has spilled over from her father to her. A flashback to the rape has a different ending and turns out to be a fantasy, Verhoeven cutting to a smile on Huppert’s face. Even more darkly, several occurrences in the story seems to be out and out caused by Michelle, whose decisions shockingly start fatefully effecting those around her. Michelle's fantasy video game, one made by men but in a company run by women, retains the same ambiguity as Elle itself: Who's in control of this world, and what can you do with that power? As with the best filmmakers, Verhoeven's sinister and, of course, provocative new film asks more than it answers. It lays out the board, hazardous with abrupt violence, comic traps and ironic, sly motivations—and is very game to play.