When it comes to what to expect from Paul Verhoeven, the only thing any viewer can predict for certain is that it will always be something with just a tinge of freakdom to it. His latest feature, the sixteenth in his canon, is no exception. Called simply Elle, the film opens with the jarring sound editing of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped to the watchful and curious gaze of her cat, Marty (often a scene stealer throughout).
With a screenplay by David Birke adapted from Philippe Dijan’s Oh…, Verhoeven interweaves his distinct knack for layered details starting from the very outset, portraying Michèle as the sort of matter-of-fact woman who gets right up after being sexually assaulted and takes a bath, splashing away the strategically placed triangle of blood that forms in her bubble bath as she goes about the business of continuing on with her life.
As we gain further insight into Michèle’s background, it’s unveiled that her father is currently serving a life sentence for committing the mass murder of every child on their block when she was just ten years old. Often suspected of partaking in the murders with him thanks to an immortalized picture of her helping him burn their furniture in the yard after he came back home and an occasionally aired TV special called The Accused Will Rise, Michèle could never quite recover her reputation from the ordeal. Nonetheless, her no-nonsense, domineering attitude led her to become the CEO of a successful video game company with a noticeably erotic bent. Her longtime friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), helps her run the company, and is, according to Michèle, even closer to Michèle’s son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), than she is. Indeed, Michèle can’t fathom Vincent’s insistence on moving in with his pregnant girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz), a young girl she deems psychotic and opportunistic. Because Vincent was only months ago dealing weed as a profession, his transformation into fast food worker warms Michèle’s heart enough to convince her to give him three months’ rent up front so he can fulfill his earnest desire to move in with Josie–his urgent enthusiasm for being a father one we ultimately learn is rooted in his need to compensate for the grotesque legacy established by Michèle’s own patriarch.
Tellingly, Vincent’s request for a bit of financial aid comes right on the heels of Michèle being violated. So pragmatic and impassive is Michèle that she not only doesn’t bother to inform the police, but also gets an STD test as soon as possible after the event. She eventually informs her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), Anna and Anna’s husband/Michèle’s paramour, Robert (Christian Berkel), of the attack many days later over dinner and then brushes it off by saying, “I feel silly even telling you” just as the waiter brings a bottle of champagne. It is thus that Michèle’s impenetrability serves as the anchor for all of the many running themes (including the inevitability of female friendship being the only source of true love in a woman’s life) throughout Verhoeven’s taut cinematic universe.
In spite of her recent attack, Michèle still can’t help but lust after and masturbate to her across the street neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a mercurial banker married to a religious zealot. This parallel, of course, mirrors the fanaticism of Michèle’s own father, who killed in the name of defending God’s honor. It is these subtle yet over the top interconnected threads that make Elle so immensely engaging to watch. Paired with the deadpan humor and timing of Huppert (who one could almost imagine in Gina Gershon’s role in Showgirls in terms of cutthroat nature displayed), Elle comes across as an epic thriller without ever realizing until the end just how simply it was made.
The deeper Michèle delves into finding out who her assailant is, the more she unearths just how high her tolerance for monsters are, both of the video game and real life variety. Then again, because Michèle has slayed more than her fair share of brutes, a masked rape fetishist seems like just another drop in the bucket.