It’s a rather universally accepted truth that the French are more relaxed about sex than Americans. And if the production of Elle is any indication, that attitude extends to rape and general misogyny as well.
Director Paul Verhoeven, who had quite the execrable run in the late 1990s with Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man, wanted to make Elle—which was adapted from a French novel that’s set in Paris—in the U.S. But no reputable actress would touch it. So when Verhoeven finally secured Isabelle Huppert for the lead, he kept the story’s original location.
Elle is the Dutch director’s first French film, and considering it’s France’s official submission for Academy Award consideration in the best foreign language film category, there would likely be no tears shed on this side of the pond if the country decided to keep him. The borderline nonchalance with which Verhoeven approaches the violent story is evident in the first scene: He trains his camera on a cat, who stares for a bit and soon walks away as an assault takes place off-screen. We then see the aftermath as a man in a black ski mask stands up and leaves while Michèle (Huppert) remains on the floor of her home. It’s daylight.
Once alone, Michèle doesn’t call the police or even a friend. Instead, she cleans up some broken glass and acts like nothing happened when her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), visits to ask her to be the guarantor for an apartment for him and his pregnant girlfriend. Michèle is the co-founder of a successful video-game company, which apparently has made her wealthy. At work, she encourages the exaggeration of sexual material in the games—including a monster’s enjoyment while he’s raping a woman—and says “otherwise, there’s no boner moment” to explain innocent-looking character’s transformation to one of power must be emphasized.
We discover why Michèle didn’t want to involve the police regarding her own assault: It turns out she has daddy issues, but not ones that involve abandonment or a shortage of “I love you”s. Her father was a mass murderer, and because he was captured at an unfortunate but tabloid-irresistible scene, a photo of a dead-eyed, half-naked, 10-year-old Michèle became forever associated with his crimes. So she tries to single out her attacker herself.
Not only does Verhoeven choose to show us a replay of Michèle’s rape, the story (adapted by David Birke, then translated back to French by Harold Manning) has her assaulted a few more times. Combine these details with Michèle’s affairs with married men, and any mental health professional would prescribe her daily sessions on a couch to help unlock this amount of baggage.
Despite the vileness of the plot, Elle remains engrossing because of Huppert’s performance. It might seem impossible to bring even the blackest comedy into such a script, but her Michèle is often funny in her seemingly continual exasperation and simply comes across as a genuine woman who’s smart, aggressive, and quick to roll her eyes at the ridiculous.
Of course, the red herrings keep you involved throughout the film as well, though its third act may leave you sickened instead of surprised. Elle is not for the closed-minded. Michèle’s home and lifestyle may project a sense of chicness, but it never completely obscures the ugliness underneath.
Elle opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center.