Paul Verhoeven shocks, subverts rape-revenge genre in ‘Elle’

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy
"Elle" | Sony Pictures Classics
Grade: A-

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Only Paul Verhoeven could create a film that opens on a black screen to the unforgiving sound of vehement sex and cuts sharply at the loud orgasmic conclusion of the encounter to the resolute stare of a fluffy, green-eyed cat. This starts off Verhoeven’s hallmark flash and bold cinematic structure, elements that are omnipresent in “Elle.” While the film seems to be hiding any allusion to a purposeful and meaningful discussion of political relevancy with its luridness, the subversive qualities are definitely there.

“Elle” is adapted by the American screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” — written by the popular French novelist Philippe Djian. The script rolls out the disturbingly unapologetic and thrilling story of its proper, Parisian heroine, Michèle Leblanc, played masterfully by French icon Isabelle Huppert. Michèle is a confident, beautifully middle-aged woman who rules her life with an intimidating wit and hardness; she owns a successful fantasy-adventure video game company with her closest friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and wades through an endlessly eccentric, soap opera-esque family. When the truth strikes that the opening scene is one of savage sexual assault, it’s hard to fathom Michèle’s response of apparent nonchalance. In reality, the absurdity of her inaction is explicable through the complexity of her life and her history.

Michèle’s life is teeming with men, but her polished sarcasm never slips as she remains unencumbered by their insecurities and demands. There’s the large staff of male employees at her office who seeth with sexism and discontentment but whom she ignores with casual disdain. There’s Michèle’s affair with Anna’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), begun in a vague attempt to relieve her sexual desire and her jealousy of her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) — who consistently dates young, pretty graduate students. And there’s Michèle’s handsome, albeit dense, married neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) who is the fantasized sex toy of her binocular’s gaze.

Michèle’s father is her one male weakness, adding a depth to her character that is entirely necessary. What isn’t necessary are the particular horrors of her and her father’s story. The subplot acts as a crutch, justifying Michèle’s relatively insensitive exterior and her absence of immediate femininity in a way that alienates her from the audience and fundamentally weakens Verhoeven’s film.

But most of the detailed side stories of Verhoeven’s numerous characters and their relations with Michèle are important. Verhoeven is a flamboyantly visionary director and he doesn’t aim to create a work of concision or conclusiveness around an exclusive exploration of rape and revenge — he creates a film that’s unrestrained plot mirrors the messiness and complexity of a life that encompases imminent and faceted dilemmas. And it works because of Huppert. She shines through the heavy-handed distractions because she presents a quiet, emotionally layered performance, embodying a nuanced character and communicating the weight of her interactions in slight smiles and tonal shifts. Where the score toes the line in telling the audience how to feel, Huppert contrasts that blunt directness with profound subtlety.

There isn’t an apparent singular thesis to Verhoeven’s film, but if there’s a conflicted observation to pull from it, it would be that men often feel threatened by women who are definitive in what they want, both in and out of the bed. Women who want sex — especially a woman like Michèle, who harbors an equal carnal desire and willingness for a bizarre fetish as her male counterpart — scare men because they threaten their masculinity. Throughout the film, the violent scenes that occur progress in an excessive and gratuitous repetition of similar staging and unswaying intensity that is nearly un-stomachable; what began as startling became slowly normalized.

It’s frightening from a perspective of female empowerment that a case of violent rape can transition so smoothly, almost subconsciously in Michèle’s head, from plots of revenge to an erotic fantasy where she can validate a feigned state of nonconsent.

This is a large grey area of political correctness that Verhoeven boldly explores, landing at a possible conclusion, tossed out in a line of dialogue by Michèle: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.”

“Elle” confronts the audience with this shame, but the film dares the audience to think about it.

Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].