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Pumping It Up: Paul Verhoeven Discusses "Elle"

An interview with the great filmmaker about his French thriller starring Isabelle Huppert.
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 Michèle 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 Michèle’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 neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whose wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is a devote Catholic. 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 Michèle’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 Michèle 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 Michèle’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: Michèle 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 Michèle, whose decisions shockingly start fatefully effecting those around her. Michèle'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.

NOTEBOOK:  I wanted to start by asking you about your transition from Tricked to this movie. That was your first digital production, and an unconventional one for you: crowd-sourced, smaller scale. Was there something you took from that experience and applied towards Elle?
PAUL VERHOEVEN:  Yes, I did. I learned it from my DP, Richard Van Oosterhout. Because it was a strange project—the first three minutes were written by a scriptwriter, but the rest had to be written. I mean, it was up and down! But it was interesting. He said to me, "as we were experimenting here anyhow, let me bring in a second camera, but a second camera that is also an A camera, so we have two A cameras. And bring in a cameraman, not an operator, but really also a director of photography." He had a friend, Lennert Hillege, he was ten years younger or something like that, with whom he said he got along very well and that there'd be no ego stuff between them. They would use two cameras all the time, jumping over each other. Normally I really rely on an A camera and in my editing when I do the next shot I build it on the A camera. If there's a B camera I say, "well, we'll see..."—you know? Often, on a lot of movies, I use just one camera. All my Dutch work is just one camera, unless it's a big action scene or whatever and then there'll be a couple of cameras.
So we did that, and I liked the way that looked, you know? What it did, basically, was create a certain nonchalance. We also decided to do everything handheld, not putting the camera on a tripod. So when I came to France to do this movie, and I chose the DP, which is Stéphane Fontaine, I explained what I had been doing in Holland one half year before, and I said, "don't you have somebody, a younger brother, say, who is also a DP and can look at the light at the same time?" Not just an operator, but someone who has insight into illuminating the scene, yeah? He said, "yeah perhaps, I have an old assistant of mine, but he's now a DP also—he might be in for some adventure." And they did it! I repeated it and it worked very well. It was very efficient, the whole movie is handheld.
NOTEBOOK:  Does this change the way your conceptualize the blocking of actors in a scene?
VERHOEVEN:  Yeah, yeah, sure. And also, basically, you're editing in your head, as you do, more or less, when you're on the set; and now you base your editing not on one camera, for the next shot, but on two cameras. It's a little bit hocus-pocus. You have to give them more freedom. Often, during the shot they have to maneuver so that one camera doesn't see the second camera, so you have to give them more freedom anyhow to crawl, to go down, to walk around. It's a bit more choreography with the cameras. It worked extremely well. We had a lot of...pleasure, you could even say, in doing a movie this way. Yeah. It depends of course, I don't think it would work for Lawrence of Arabia, you know? Movies where you really need to work on the main shot; but in a movie with so many people, I think it works in a beautiful way.
NOTEBOOK:  From the outside I tend to think of your career as one of very clever mimicry. You move from country to country and embed yourself in the cinematic language of what's going on Hollywood, what's going on in Holland. And now this movie—it feels so French. A Charbolian-Buñuelian film. It feels very "Verhoeven," but as if you are specifically making "a French movie." You're not doing Basic Instinct here.
VERHOEVEN:  No, no, no—it is a French movie.
NOTEBOOK:  Is that something you're conscious of, that this is a film made in France, in French, starring Isabelle Huppert, a "French style" subject...
VERHOEVEN:  Sure! But not that you think about. It really goes in a very organic way, because you're surrounded by French people. It's not so different from doing RoboCop, you know? A very interesting example: In '84, '85, I wanted to do, let's say because everything got so difficult in Holland, the left wing committees that were refusing, blah, blah, blah—I said I had to get out of here. So I made this movie Flesh+Blood, and I brought in American actors, Jennifer Jason Leigh is American, clearly, and others—but I was not surrounded by Americans. I was surrounded, yes, by a couple of Americans, but the rest were European, be it Dutch, Spanish, English or whatever—they came from everywhere! But although I was thinking I was making a movie that should be applauded by American audiences, it was nonsense.
I then met Mike Medavoy, who was then head of Orion, which financed Flesh+Blood, and also gave me RoboCop, who said "if you want to make an American movie, you have to sit here [taps the table]." With RoboCop, I was surrounded by Americans. Ed Neumeier was always on the script, and having Jon Davison as a producer—everyone being American, you become American a bit! Yeah? They prevent you from making major mistakes. "We don't do that that way, we don't say it that way." I think the same happened in France. I'm sure if I did it in Germany it would be the same, that I would adapt to that. If you asked me to do it in China, that might be a problem. That cultural transition would be much more difficult. In this case, it's what you said: a go-with-the-flow, yeah?
NOTEBOOK:  Going with the flow, yeah, but you're also satirizing much of the cultures in which you are working. What was it about France that—
VERHOEVEN:  —I think you find a little bit, or perhaps a lot of that, in the original novel, of course.
NOTEBOOK:  Is the Catholicism element so heavily featured there? Because you really ramp that satire up.
VERHOEVEN:  No, it's there and in fact Rebecca says "Can I see the mass?" So that's mentioned in the book, but what I did, of course, was I brought it up, yeah? That, I did. Because of that last line, when Rebecca says, basically, "thank you very much for what you did," which is not in the novel, in fact. It came from [scriptwriter] David Birke. It was there and I liked it. It does [makes throat-cutting gesture and noise]. To do this, you have also to set her down so it really feels like "what?!" So I emphasized the Roman Catholicism: praying at the table, the way she behaves. And using, let's say, full shots, full screen, of the mass at the Vatican, yeah? I mean, full screen! You're right, I pumped it up. I needed in a visual way that people would feel that, yeah? It played better at the end that way.
NOTEBOOK:  Speaking of "pumping it up," the commercials in RoboCop and the propaganda messages in Starship Troopers fit into the exaggerated realism of those worlds. Whereas the video game footage of rape and violence in Elle, while plausible as a creation of this company, clashes much more strongly against the nominal realism in which you shoot this drama. Why did you want to introduce this brash artificiality in this more naturalistic setting?
VERHOEVEN:  To be honest to video games. I wanted to be realistic here. In fact, it's not that we created this video game—I mean, we went to this company and this monster character is a character of one of their games. So what we did was use that and use them to adapt to a certain kind of story that we wanted. Everything is realistic. It looks like a real video game because it is one! We used two games and mixed the two to emphasize what we felt was important. We changed the shots, but they didn't have to invent the characters. They were already there: the guy with the [makes slobbering, violent sound] and even the woman, that was in the computer. We added the tentacles, that stuff, to parallel, perhaps, a little bit. Some people see a lot in it explaining the movie; but I thought more, yeah, it is about a woman getting assaulted, but because she gets stabbed in the head you could also say in a way that it's Starship Troopers.
NOTEBOOK:  I find your films very ironic, often dealing directly with irony. I mean, this film begins with a cat witnessing a rape—
VERHOEVEN:  —and losing interest after orgasm! Hmm? It's true! [laughs] The guy comes and then the cat walks away.
NOTEBOOK:  Are you actively telling ironic stories?
VERHOEVEN:  It goes on by itself. You start to laugh, I'm storyboarding it, and I have to laugh, in fact. Interesting enough. Even with Starship Troopers or RoboCop, Ed Neumeier and I, while we were working on it, we were often laughing!"Let's do this!" "Yeah, yeah, let's do that!" Otherwise, it becomes forced. If it comes up like...pleasure, and afterwards you laugh about it yourself. That this came up, out of your brain, boom!
NOTEBOOK:  At the same time, to put that kind of humor in a movie that—and you do this throughout your work—has such violent crimes, such violent crimes. How do balance these things? How do you decide how much of something that's extreme on the screen you want to show? To show this rape twice, essentially, and re-stage it other times—it's risky.
VERHOEVEN:  I think with rape you don't have a choice. I think it's very dishonest to portray it elliptically. It is impossible to give a "light version" of it. It's not possible. It is violence. And it is, basically, brutal. And on top of that, if you see, let's say, statistically, I think in the United States it's 1900 sexual assaults a day, yeah? Every minute of the day in the United States there's a sexual assault. It is part of reality. I think you cannot mess with that. But I refuse to say that because that's serious reality then that means that everything has to be that way. So I don't want it to be that genre. People have called Elle a rape comedy or a revenge movie; it isn't, but I don't think you can show the rape another way. What you can do and what I avoid is to see too much real nudity there. Because I think that's distracting, because it is about the violence, you know? In her fantasy she kills the guy, yeah? With an ashtray, in fact [picks up nearby ashtray], and breaks his brain.
NOTEBOOK:  There's a sneaking sense through the movie—I've seen it a couple times now—that Michèle starts to effect the course of events around her. Almost that she pulls the strings. The first moment is when she makes an off-hand comment to her mother, who then collapses. Next, she tells her father that she killed him by visiting his prison. By the film's end, she's practically controlling the mise en scène of her final fantasy.
VERHOEVEN:  Yeah, you know you could even say that she arranged that killing.
NOTEBOOK:  In a way, she becomes the director.
VERHOEVEN:  It's not said, but you could read it that when she gives the key to her son she plans the whole thing. But I felt that it would be too direct to push that and bring it to the audience, so I left it open. Personally, I read it more like coincidence; basically, I saw it more as coincidence than as something that she thought out. But I knew when I was shooting it that it could be both ways. But I didn't want to say it's either this or that.
NOTEBOOK:  I found the characterization of Michèle incredibly delicate. There's a psychological insight, but there's also a level where she remains puzzling. The structure of the story gives her this traumatic incident with her father, which in a cheap book or a lousy movie would explain why she is who she is, why she does what she does. But I feel that ultimately I don't understand her that well. Yet, we spend so much time looking at her, seeing how she thinks about things and reacts to events, so it's highly psychological. I'm wondering how you worked with both the script and with Isabelle Huppert to create this simultaneous clarity and mystery in her character.
VERHOEVEN:  We didn't discuss that. We just did the script. Really. There was no discussion about that in any way. I saw the character as so well-established even before you get all this information about what happened to her in the past. In the beginning, a woman that gets raped and the next shot is basically picking up the debris that fell on the ground, taking a bath, washing away the blood, ordering sushi—that is the character! That is a woman who doesn't want to be a victim. That basically said, "this happened, and it will not change the next day for me."
Of course, you can argue that it has to do with what happened to her in the past, but I felt that it was very important—I took it from the book, really—also in the book [author Philippe] Djian reveals step-by-step in different pages until halfway or something, he establishes what happened in the past. That's how he wrote it. So we do that too, we know the father is in prison and she doesn't want to see him, then you get more explanation, you see the documentary—now you know what's happening. You don't know exactly why—it's only at the Christmas party that it turns out that he [the father] is probably a psychotic Christian, right? Because he wants to put the crosses on all the children in school, and when he can't he flips out. He's a psychotic or becomes psychotic. More or less half way through you know Michèle's background, but I felt that the things that happen after she discovers who is the rapist...it doesn't go this way, because then the third act would be her revenge.
But going that way... I felt that it absolutely would be cheap and kitschy to say, "she does this because of that." I feel that art—if you want to call it that—that the art of this movie, and perhaps even art in general, should basically not do that. There should be possibilities for an audience—be it of a painting or a movie—to fill in. To not over-explain. Djian didn't do that, either. In the book he's not saying, "now she starts this sadomasochistic relationship because she has been punished so much in the past." That would be depressingly simplistic, I would say. And kitschy! I think we—Isabelle and I—were very much aware of that. The moment you say it, it becomes cheap.
But if there's a certain kind of mystery that is built in, like you said—yeah, for me, too. And for her too. She said that, you know? She said, "sometimes I didn't know why I was doing it, but when I did it, it felt okay." I trusted her. I followed her wherever she went. She went sometimes in overdrive, added pieces, emotions that came up suddenly. I took it! I felt that she was even ahead of me in extending this character into parts of the scene that were not written. I used them all. I've never had this. I was sometimes sitting looking at the screen saying, "what is she doing?! Oh!" And [panting] instead of saying cut. And I used it.

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