Legendary Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven made his name in the 1990s with film such as Starship Troopers, Showgirls and Basic Instinct. After a long absence from the public eye, the mercurial director returns with Elle, a drama centring around the eponymous businesswomen’s horrific experience of being raped in a home intrusion and her attempts to discover the identity of the man who assaulted her. From lovers to neighbours, employees to exes, the list of suspects is long, and Verhoeven has the audience guessing until late on, when the shocking revelation brings with it a new and altogether more alarming development.
Where Elle shares a commonality with Verhoeven’s past films is in its explicit violence and sexual content – the film richly deserves its 18+ certificate – as the audience watches the assault at the centre of the story a number of times and from a number a number of angles throughout the film. Like many of Verhoeven’s other heroines, Elle is a woman with a deep sense of her own sexuality, and knows how to use it to her advantage in her relationships with all of the various men in her life. However, as we learn more about Elle (played by Oscar nominated Isabelle Huppert), her history and her behaviour, the audience is forced to wonder what her own motivations and desires really are.
Having said this, Elle does perhaps seem to be more restrained than much of the director’s previous works. There are moments of stillness and quiet reflection here that were not present in films like Starship Troopers or Basic Instinct, and this is one of the major factors behind Elle feeling like a much more balanced, finely crafted work. What has given Verhoeven the confidence to move away from quite the same level of unsubtle brashness is up for speculation; there is a chance that the years out of the limelight have allowed him to mature as a filmmaker. However, the most likely explanation is that here he has Isabelle Huppert at his disposal, an actress who can say more with a look or a shrug than most can with a ream of script. Her performance here harks back to the parts she herself has played in the films of Michael Haneke – The Piano Teacher, Amour, White Ribbon – in as much as she has to grapple with the same dark and at times twisted themes. The stillness of Huppert’s performance also reminded me of one of my favourite performances of the past few years in Charlotte Rampling’s turn in 45 Years. While that film does not share Elle’s darker moments, it does deal with the inner machinations of a female protagonist who does not know who she can trust, including herself.
The most surprising aspect of Verhoeven’s new film is how funny it is. Much of this comedy comes from scenes of confrontation between Elle and a variety of characters, whether it be her mother (Judith Magre), her ex husband (Charles Berling) or her lover (Christian Berkel), which routinely end in humiliation, public or otherwise, for the other character as Elle runs rings around those in her social circle. In fact, it is the dichotomy between her prowess at manipulating those she rubs shoulders with both professionally and privately and her vulnerability in the face of a dangerous and disturbed assailant that makes Elle, both the character and the film, so intriguing.