There was a time when it felt like Paul Verhoeven could do no wrong. The provocative Dutch director's run of Hollywood hits like Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct made him one to watch, deftly mixing crowd-pleasing action and drama with provocation, titillation and incisive social commentary in an easy-to-digest package. That streak of successes notably (and very publicly) ended with 1995’s ode to excess Showgirls, perhaps the most high profile NC-17 movie since it replaced the X rating in 1990. Showgirls was rejected by public and critic alike in part because it seems most thought it to be genuine, which it entirely is not. A very similar fate befell his follow-up, Starship Troopers, the Heinlein adaptation that was savaged for fetishizing war despite its clear intention to commentate on the over-fetishization of war, especially by those outside of it. By the time the Kevin Bacon thriller Hollow Man flopped, Verhoeven decided he had had it with Hollywood, and left America for the less inhibited but more challenging world of European financing. Two generally ignored efforts followed over twelve years (Black Book in 2006 and Tricked in 2012), but now, it seems Verhoeven has returned to prominence with the release of his newest film Elle, debuting to strong praise at Cannes and following that wave through festivals across the world. Now it has seen release in the country that alienated its director as he looks to have the last laugh.
Elle opens with a rape, ensuring Verhoeven has not abandoned his love for provocation. The assaulted woman is Michele (Isabelle Huppert), the head of a French video game company and daughter of an infamous serial killer in prison for life. She seems to shake off the attack rather quickly, refusing to go to the police and waiting three days to visit the doctor. She generally tries to resume her life as normal, battling with her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) over sticking by his girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) despite clearly not being the father of her child. She carries on with an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend Anna (Anne Cosigny), and has taken a liking to her neighbor Richard (Charles Berling). Despite her best attempts to move on, her assailant turns stalker and her harassment spreads to her office. Vowing to take matters into her own hands when her rapist returns, she buys industrial strength pepper spray and a hatchet, ready for round two.
Despite directing less than four total hours of film in a dozen years, Elle proves Verhoeven has not lost his touch since leaving the Hollywood studio system. His taste for provocation is certainly intact, as he juxtaposes Michele’s violent rape with a shot of her cat, purring in the corner of the room like nothing is wrong. Much of the film is marked by misdirection and gallows humor, seeming to distract from the horror of her ordeal. The absurdity of her son’s love for a child who doesn’t share his (or his girlfriend’s) skin tone, the casual flirtation with married men, it all defies assumed expectation. Where’s the outrage? The desire for revenge? We’ve seen these stories before, we know how they’re supposed to play out, but Verhoeven isn’t all that interested in how these things usually play out. “Usually” isn’t how he operates.
This is not to say her rape is trivialized or forgotten. The event attacks his way into Michele’s consciousness, the scene forces itself onto the screen via violent smash cuts disrupting the mundanity of her life. But she only really acts when it becomes clear that her assailant not only isn’t going away, but clearly intends to make her a victim again. Yet even then, this never becomes I Spit on Your Grave or any of the other pulpy exploitation revenge fantasies. Verhoeven strives for something else entirely, something far thornier and more complex, something altogether more human that doesn’t settle for the easy response positively or negatively. Such an approach has a staggering degree of difficulty, flirting with flippancy and impregnable emotion in equal measure, but Huppert again proves herself to be an unassailable talent, so effortless in her internalization of such a dizzying storm of conflicting emotions. Huppert doesn’t have the cache in the States that she does in, say, her native France, where she boasts over a dozen Cesar (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) nominations, but the art house crowd should find it no surprise that she is titanic in Elle. Few can be so captivating while so prickly (she is heard to remark “this an aneurysm thing, or just treachery” to her comatose mother after a stroke), so vulnerable while so closed off. Few, if anyone, could successfully navigate Verhoeven’s provocations without reducing it to be just about the provocations and nothing more. Huppert does all of this and more, providing one of the defining screen performances of 2016.
There is more to Elle than Huppert, though she should surely be in contention for the performance of the year regardless of gender. The film boasts a strong ensemble, judicious editing, a quietly effective score from Anne Dudley and excellent cinematography from Stephane Fontaine (who is gaining additional plaudits for his stunning work in the upcoming Jackie). As human drama, it asks tough questions that often don’t have answers about how we should respond to grief and trauma versus how we actually do when faced with it in the moment. When it wants to be a thriller, it succeeds mightily, with Verhoeven pulling the strings effortlessly, making characters and audience alike assume the worst is hiding behind every corner. The director hasn’t felt this vital arguably since Robocop, his masterpiece of an anti-corporatist screed, and it’s heartening to know that he hasn’t skipped a beat despite all of his setbacks working within the Hollywood system and his reduced directorial output since returning to Europe. One would hope that the rightfully rapturous response to this challenging and profoundly rewarding film will spur him on to keep going; if he can still make films like Elle, he is still a powerful and important voice in world cinema. We would be loath to forget that.