Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) isn’t a nice woman.
The ruthless head of a successful video game company, compassion isn’t her style – an authoritative upper hand, served with a side of occupational efficiency and consistent sizing down, is. She’d maim an employee O-Ren Ishii style if her jurisdiction were threatened passionately enough. Midway through Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), wherein she serves as the anti-heroine, a woman purposely dumps her leftovers in LeBlanc’s lap in a café. “Scum!” she snarls.
We suspect this sort of incident happens on the regular.
But the first time we meet the domineering LeBlanc, it has not yet been established that she is a power player, maneater, and master manipulator. What has been established is that she is a victim: the opening credits roll just as her house is broken into and she is brutally raped by a ski mask donning goon.
After her assailant departs, we expect her to immediately try to get help, to try to make sense of the situation. But her actions characterize her as someone who cannot easily be shaken. She promptly, and emotionlessly, throws her clothes in the garbage, takes a blood soaked bubble bath, and orders sushi. Her bedside companion that night is an edged weapon.
LeBlanc isn’t trying to process what has happened to her: she’s pretending the crime didn’t happen. No way in hell will she admit to herself that there were a few minutes in her life during which she wasn’t completely in control. That would ensure a chink in her carefully constructed, distinctly self-reliant, persona, and her sense of self is too well established to welcome in acknowledgments of victimization.
So she continues going through the motions. But denial can only linger for so long before it begins to shift into psychological damage, and before long does LeBlanc start exhibiting signs of distress only a woman of her regard could exhibit.
As Elle is directed by Verhoeven, the extremism prone Dutch filmmaker who brought us Basic Instinct (1992), Black Book (2006), and, yes, Showgirls (1995), it’s clear from the get-go that the movie, his first feature in a decade, is not going to be a somber drama about a woman’s coming to terms with past trauma. Instead, anticipations that it will be a rape and revenge thriller abound, as Verhoeven has a tendency to lean toward the pulpier, more melodramatic, side of things.
But as the movie progresses, we find that Elle is many films fused together, joining to build an idiosyncratic, unfocused, yet mesmerizing character study. It glides back and forth between the ludicrous and the suspenseful without a set bias toward either. But Huppert and Verhoeven, showcasing career best work, never let us doubt for a second that they don’t know exactly what they’re doing.
Perhaps we aren’t as apt at deciphering the metaphors and symbols persistently traveling through Elle as its maker and star can, but that hardly matters. Like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), despite being on nearly opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum both stylistically and tonally, the film is hypnotic in spite of its insistence on definite sonic unclarity.
Such is inevitable, considering how many themes and provocations tap dance around Elle’s interior. It is a study of the aftereffects of childhood tragedy (in a surprising yet also unsurprising twist, it is revealed that LeBlanc’s currently incarcerated father is a mass murderer), gender dynamics in the workplace, and the frequently blurred lines between full-blown assault and sexual violence as a fetish. It is also a black comedy, a psychological suspenser, a horror show, a media satire, and an updated take on the erotic thrillers Verhoeven specialized in in the late 1980s and early ‘90s that never looks like one of those said erotic thrillers.
Some of the shadings work better than others: a Buñuel reminiscent dinner party centered in the movie’s middle act subtly encapsulates many of the aforementioned ideas, while, by contrast, scenes set in the workplace are sometimes needlessly bizarre, far-reaching, even, to underline the misogyny oftentimes felt in the corporate world. The movie gets especially worrisome when LeBlanc discovers the identity of her rapist and attempts to have an abusive, twisted sexual relationship with him in order to regain the power he stole from her. Ideas of middle-aged rape fantasies proliferate in scenes colored by this element, and we’re not so much disturbed as we are unconvinced. If Verhoeven and his writer, David Birke, are trying to prove that maybe LeBlanc has always dreamed about violation eventually overturned by sexual domination, we aren’t having it.
But the skepticism that inhibits some of Elle’s pivotal scenes don’t easily stop the momentum led by Verhoeven’s artistic fanaticism and Huppert’s phenomenal performance. Huppert, particularly, is incendiary, giving a carefully planned characterization that leaves jaws stuck to the floor. Her work, the first to be nominated for an Academy Award (a shameful reality given that the majority of Europe regularly compares her to America’s greatest chameleon, Meryl Streep), is never inflamed by an emotionally explosive scene that clarifies why the performance has garnered so much acclaim. We are, rather, enraptured by what Huppert doesn’t do, and the various ways she refuses to play the part of the typical victim. Because the writing itself is so unpredictable, Huppert only heightens the film’s ferocious stepping away from categorization. She never tries to be likable. We never know where her portrayal is heading, and our fascination with that uncertainty is what makes Elle so thrilling and so unparalleled.
It ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note, which only seems fitting since a movie doing so many different things at once is bound to have a messy finale and not a terse one. But its witty voraciousness, complemented by Verhoeven’s directorial confidence and Huppert’s almost offhanded capability to handle immensely difficult material, makes it among 2016’s most sensational (and strange) films.