Paul Verhoeven is a director who isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and politically correct etc. His latest film Elle is a prime example of this, it’s fundamentally a black comedy which deals with rape, a topic considered by many something you can’t make any kind of jokes about. It’s Verhoeven first film in a decade and it’s simultaneously a change of pace for him but it’s pure vintage Verhoeven at the same time and very French.
Isabelle Huppert is a wealthy head of a video game company that specializes in violent video games. She is attacked and raped in her home and decides to track down her attacker without any police help, she doesn’t trust the police due to a traumatic childhood. She is having an affair with a friend’s husband and her son is going out with a psycho and working at a fast food joint. Things get complicated when she tracks down the attacker because she kind of enjoyed what happened to her, so a possible new relationship starts to bloom.
The film is based upon the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian who also wrote Betty Blue which gives you a good idea of what to expect, that film also deals with extreme circumstances, relationships and acting on your urges. The original novel is set in Paris but was going to be made in the States either Boston or Chicago however due to lack of interest in such risqué material the studios turned it down. It was also hard to find an actress willing to do it, Verhoeven believes that Jennifer Jason Leigh would’ve been game but maybe did not quite have the star power to get it made.
The role naturally went to Isabelle Huppert who is considered by many to be the finest living actress and who Dijan was actually thinking of when he wrote the novel. She perfectly captures this woman who is complex, modern and who isn’t willing to portray herself as a victim, which a lot of feminists would be disgusted by. Huppert has described the character of Elle “post-feminist” and it’s also a very much a film about middle age female empowerment. It’s a film which contradicts itself with it’s gender politics not unlike what Verhoeven did so brilliantly did with fascism in Starship Troopers which at the time people thought was pro-fascist, it was anything but.
If you get “triggered” by the mere mention of “rape” let’s just say you probably shouldn’t see it. However, if you want to see an actress at the top of her game and a director like Verhoeven at his satirical best with pot shots at the French bourgeoisie and religious hypocrisy you are in for a treat. The film isn’t perfect by any means, it could probably lose around 20 minutes of it’s running time but it’s great to see Verhoeven back after a long absence. Huppert is also great and she got a well-deserved golden globe for her work and an academy award nomination. Oh and the cat deserved an Oscar as well.
I interviewed Paul Verhoeven for The Week which you can read here.