Paul Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct, Black Book, Hollow Man, Starship Troopers, Showgirls, Total Recall, Robocop and more, likes to make viewers squirm. His rape-revenge drama, Elle, has repeated images of sexual violence. Going into an early screening I was ready to chide the filmmaker for using misery as entertainment. The lurid visuals are there in abundance, but there's so much more going on that you end up tumbling a load of psycho-sexual questions around your noggin. In Elle, Verhoeven transcends himself.
The film, based on Philippe Djian's 2012 novel, was going to be re-set in America, but Verhoeven decided to keep it in France after deciding that Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher) was the best choice for the lead role. Good decision. Her work here is stunning.
I'm not going to tell you much about the story. It starts with the rape of Michele Leblanc (Huppert) and follows her responses to the act. Along the way, we learn that something unspeakably horrible happened to her when she was a child (no, not that, something even worse).
Leblanc doesn't talk about what happened then or what happened at the start of the film. The incidents come up later, but only after we've had a chance to study the manner in which she deals with people, and the steps she appears to take to protect herself from being attacked again.
Along the way, we revisit the rape, or perhaps it's another one, or a fantasy. We deal with sexually explicit video games (she's the CEO of a company that makes them), numerous forms of kink, a mystery that goes in a different direction than it would in most films, and a hypnotic character study presenting by the amazing Isabelle Huppert.
Why does Leblanc do what she does? After learning about her past, I was eager to watch the film again. It's a decidedly different experience on second viewing.
While interviewing Paul Verhoeven in 2000, I pressed him on his ultra-violent imagery and apparent pitch black outlook on much of humanity. The filmmaker talked at length about the brutality of nature, He spoke about galaxies colliding for a while, going into full rant mode for a bit, then his voice softened as he talked about his childhood during WWII.
"I grew up in occupied Holland," he said, "and I saw … there were a lot of people that got killed by bombing, and there were resisters that were shot on the streets by Germans. I was about seven when the war stopped. When I was five, six, seven, we lived in the Hague and were constantly bombed there, not by the Germans, but by the English. Our house was about a mile from the rocket launching pads, where they launched the V-1's and V-2's to England, and the English and Americans were constantly bombing that area. The area around us, with the exception of the street we lived on and a couple of others, were completely destroyed. I remember the flames and the people being killed. And the Germans – one evening I remember walking with my father and suddenly we were held by Germans and they said 'You cannot walk there, you have to walk here and look at something.' And we walked there and saw 20 people they had taken out of prison and shot. They put them against the wall and shot them and made sure that everyone going home passed them. Dead bodies there, yeah, I remember all that. So you may be more optimistic than I am."
Imagine someone dragging people to see such things. Imagine forcing a child to see that.
Elle is the best of Paul Verhoeven's movies. With flashing warning signs, I highly recommend it.