Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is best known for spectacle-driven sci-fi action offerings like Total Recall, RoboCop, and Starship Troopers. But the daring Dutch director has spent the past decade crafting more challenging cinema, like the World War II drama Black Book, the crowdsourced Tricked, and his latest: Elle, the controversial comedy that begins with a grim rape scene.
Over black, we hear grunting and gasps of a man and a woman. It’s either sexual or a struggle, or both. As we listen, it becomes apparent the latter is in pain, then the sharp sound of a slap rings out. The first visual is not Elle‘s star Isabelle Huppert sprawled on the floor, surrounded by shattered glassware with her breast rawly exposed from a torn dress and blood sliding down her legs, as a tall man in all black and a ski mask rises from her to swat the blood off his naked crotch. That’s the second shot of this provocative film. The first is a close-up of an indifferent house cat, staring blankly at the off-screen attack as the sounds of rape throb in the theater swallowing a stunned audience. This placid pet’s reaction shot to grotesque violence is the brand of comedy Verhoeven offers in Elle. Playful yet deeply cynical, it is sure to stroke some dark hearts just right. But if that doesn’t sound funny, this movie is not for you.
Huppert stars as Michelle Leblanc, a woman introduced as a rape victim, and subsequently shown as a mother, daughter, CEO, wife, friend and lover. Yet none of these roles are introduced as a way to warm viewers to Michelle. To her dullard son, gigolo-loving mother and spurned husband, she is a bully and skinflint. To her employees, she is a teasing tyrant. To her lover she is cold and uncompromising, and to her friends she is traitorous. But for all this, Michelle is not the film’s villain; society is. And Michelle will not be its victim, not by violence or judgment. So, she resolutely rises from her rape to wipe the gore off her legs, clean up the glass, and order take-out as if nothing happened. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t call the police. She doesn’t care if you understand why.
Verhoeven’s adaptation of Philippe Djian‘s novel offers a bleak world where men are petty, bitter, and power-hungry, and ball-busting Michelle is their ultimate foil and fascination. She is constructed completely of negative female stereotypes, from the nagging mother to the disobedient daughter, the feckless homewrecker, and the dreaded fake geek girl. (She runs a video game company without much apparent knowledge or interest in the art of video game making, coupled with a very low opinion of gamers who buy her wares.) Wielding cruel stares and withering remarks like careless weapons, Huppert is mesmerizing and revolting. But despite her sharp delivery and confident carriage, the French icon can’t sell Michelle as anything more than an intriguing and enraging abstraction. So the emotional stakes of this pitch-black comedy never land, blunting its edge.
Verhoeven has caused stirs by declaring this is not a rape comedy, but rather a comedy with rape. I agree. The rape scenes themselves (yes, there are more than one) are disturbing, and not treated as laughing matters. The sneering joke of Elle is polite society itself, which, like Michelle, plasters on a false smile as it whisks away the thoughts of daily atrocities. But even as Verhoeven’s satirical elements hit, the humor feels too cold-blooded to stir a laugh or much of a reaction beyond vague dread from this critic. However, I was most disappointed by how predictable Verhoeven’s supposedly shocking comedy actually is.
The buzz out of its New York Film Festival premiere had critics battling whether its story was feminist, post-feminist, or misogynistic. Verhoeven himself has made it clear he’s not interested in these labels, and his dismissiveness earned further online ire. All this meant I went to my screening with a sickening tension in my belly, awaiting what got my peers so riled. And frankly, I’m at a loss.
If you’ve see erotic thrillers from the ’80s or ’90s, including Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct, you’ve seen something as scandalous as Elle. Hell, if you watched General Hospital in the late ’70s/early ’80s, you’ve seen worse. The most surprising thing about Elle is only that it’s not an artifact of that era but a new film from a once-pioneering filmmaker that mistakenly insists it has something fresh to say.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Featured Image: SBS Productions/Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion GmbH/France 2 Cinéma/Entre Chien et Loup