I don’t think I’ve ever kicked off a movie review with a trigger warning before. But Paul Verhoeven’s transfixing and enraging Elle, a misanthropic social satire that’s also—I think?—a queasy erotic thriller about sadomasochism and sexual assault, contains more potential triggers than an open casting call for the role of Roy Rogers’ horse. It’s perfectly understandable if your curiosity about what kind of film Verhoeven and his star Isabelle Huppert might create together—both are idiosyncratic veterans of international cinema who share a perverse sense of humor and a fascination with the dark side of human nature—is overshadowed by a more basic human desire not to needlessly expose yourself to some pretty graphic (if thoroughly unglamorized) depictions of sexual violence. If that’s the case, you are at liberty to close this tab, forget about Elle, and have a nice long soak in the tub. But for people who enjoy coming out of movies unsettled, a little riled up, bursting with questions, and spoiling for a debate, see Elle.
For more than 30 years, the Dutch-born Verhoeven has been an audacious director of crowd-pleasing entertainments whose slick surfaces tend to conceal pointed barbs about consumerism and media-enabled complacency. His best film, 1997’s Starship Troopers, was a brazenly weird sci-fi comedy set in a dystopic near future in which the human race is locked into permanent, economy-sustaining war against insectoid aliens. Starship Troopers’ bold mix of savage social satire and rib-cracking comedy still makes it a unique artifact nearly 20 years later. Robocop, Showgirls, Total Recall: When you think about it, all of Verhoeven’s best work over the years has this quality of doubleness. His films are at once popcorn movies stuffed with visual and narrative pleasures (gorgeous semi-clad movie stars, eye-popping special effects) and mordant sendups of just such movies. The viewer, implicated by her own voyeurism in the worlds Verhoeven creates, also finds herself implicated in his films’ social critique.
This dynamic doesn’t get more unsettling than in Elle, Verhoeven’s first movie to be filmed and set in France. Huppert is Michèle Leblanc, the cultured and well-off CEO of a computer gaming company, a divorced woman with a grown son who lives alone in a swanky Paris mansion. But before we know those things about her—before we know her at all, in fact—we come upon her being raped by a masked intruder who’s just broken into her home. That attack, and the complicated aftermath of it in Michèle’s life and the lives of those around her, will be the subject of the rest of the movie. But Michèle’s response to her rape fits into no known Hollywood category: Elle isn’t a vigilante-justice thriller, a female-empowerment fable, or the tragic tale of a crime victim ignored by the justice system. It’s something far more enigmatic, if at times infuriating in its very ambiguity: a black comedy about pervasive systemic misogyny and female rage.
Elle is also, in its own twisted way, a whodunit. Part of the audience’s engagement with this frequently hard-to-watch movie (that opening rape scene is the worst instance of sexual violence, but far from the last) is our desire to figure out, along with Michèle, who was behind that mask. The revelation of the attacker’s identity, which arrives about halfway in, only complicates the movie’s moral math further. Michèle never reports the incident—after a traumatic childhood experience that we learn about only via a few scenes from a TV documentary, she wants nothing more to do with the police. Instead, in the weeks that follow she replays the incident over and over, sometimes in solo daydreams of bloody revenge and sometimes, upsettingly, in sexual encounters that seek in different ways to repeat and master the scene of rape.
As a video game developer at a company she runs with her longtime best friend (Anne Consigny), Michèle is never far removed from representations of threatened and objectified women; indeed, fine-tuning her products for a mass audience of angry woman-haters is an important tool in her professional skill set. In an early scene, she watches some test footage for a game that’s still in beta: As a many-tentacled monster penetrates a Game of Thrones–style medieval maiden, Michèle barks at the (male) underling in charge of the game’s design that “the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.”
For about its first hour and a half, Elle struck me as a masterful meditation on the complex causality of rape culture, with a career-best performance from the eternally sublime (and, at 63, eternally beautiful) Huppert, who plays the coolly pragmatic Michèle as an emotional chess master. Michèle foresees everyone else’s reactions four steps ahead while hiding much of herself even from her best friends; fittingly, Huppert always seems to conceal some essence of herself from us. At times the movie’s tone of icy cruelty—toward every character including at times Michèle, who can herself be icily cruel—put me in mind of the German feel-bad master Michael Haneke, but Verhoeven’s work has more humor and more earthy vulgarity. The characters in Elle aren’t symbols of patriarchal oppression lightly clad in human qualities; they’re anxious, struggling individuals with desires they don’t understand, who sometimes make decisions they know to be dangerous or foolish.
I will freely admit that for Elle’s last half-hour I was befuddled as to the motivation of just about every character, from Michèle to her shambling ex-husband and would-be protector (Charles Berling) to her well-meaning but dumb-as-a-post son (Jonas Bloquet). Verhoeven’s love of audience provocation and dramatic twists means that the revelations, coincidences, and confrontations pile up pretty thick as the end draws near—and when it did arrive, I found the final plot developments confusingly retrograde, for reasons I can’t disclose. Even after two viewings, I’m not sure I fully understand what Elle is setting out to accomplish in terms of subverting the clichés of rape revenge drama; in some ways, it may even be reinforcing those clichés. But as I watched, I never doubted that I was in the hands of a master—two of them actually, Verhoeven and Huppert—and that whatever dark places they took me to, there would be something worth thinking and talking about on the other side.