Michèle, the heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which premieres in competition at Cannes on Saturday evening, decides on an unusual strategy after being attacked in her Paris apartment by a masked rapist: Instead of reporting the crime to the police, she engages in a cat-and-mouse game with her attacker—an approach that might not seem particularly sensible or realistic but is perfectly suited to the needs of Verhoeven’s hugely entertaining attempt to fuse aspects of a Hollywood-like thriller with the stylish veneer of a French comedy of manners.
After a storied career in both the Netherlands and Hollywood, Verhoeven has now made his first French-language film. Despite his circuitous career path, this makes a certain amount of sense. After enduring the violent critical and public reaction to Showgirls, a film that has recently been reevaluated by critics and is now even considered something of a modern classic by at least a handful of them, he never entirely forgave Hollywood. Hollow Man, his last stateside feature, was released sixteen years ago.
Not surprisingly, French critics and filmmakers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Showgirls—most notably the late New Wave director Jacques Rivette.
Based on Philippe Djian‘s novel “Oh…” with a screenplay by the American writer David Birke, Elle avoids the stale conventions of the rape/revenge subgenre. Michèle, portrayed brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert, is not merely a solitary avenger. She’s a complex woman with rather opaque motivations surrounded by an intricate network of friends and family members.
While Michèle has no doubt been scarred by the fact that her father was one of France’s most notorious serial killers, Verhoeven, as he reiterated at the Elle press conference, is not interested in formulating a “Freudian” subtext. Rather than exploring Michèle’s psychological depths, Verhoeven and Birke are more preoccupied with having the audience share her reactions to a motley assortment of other characters. These include her best friend’s husband, with whom she has an intense affair, as well as her sexually voracious mother, a son trapped in a comically dysfunctional relationship, and an ex-husband with a taste for much younger women.
In addition, Elle slyly alludes to Verhoeven’s action films, especially RoboCop and Starship Troopers. Michèle is the head of a video game company and the examples of the games she produces resemble mini-parodies of Hollywood action scenarios.
Although the role of Michèle was not explicitly written with Huppert in mind, it’s difficult to imagine many other actresses taking on the challenge of playing this contradictory and elusive character. Elle was originally conceived as a Hollywood adaptation of a French novel that would be refurbished with an American setting. But Verhoeven supposedly found it difficult to cast an American actress willing to play a far from conventionally likable, or even at times, legible woman. Huppert is of course an old hand at playing ambiguous protagonists. Whether fighting off an intruder with the flair of a Gallic Ninja warrior or exchanging glances with her cat, she’s never less than a magnetic screen presence.
Elle’s cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, known for his work with Jacques Audiard, enhances the film’s visceral impact by providing a glittering visual style to accompany Verhoeven’s perverse parable.
It’s difficult to know whether Elle, when it’s released in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, will generate controversy for its heroine’s unorthodox response to a brutal series of rapes. Previous Verhoeven films have almost functioned as cinematic Rorschach tests. Starship Troopers was initially attacked as a fascist film—even though more perceptive critics eventually proclaimed that it was in fact an anti-fascist satire. At the time of Basic Instinct’s release, the gay and lesbian community condemned it as homophobic. But Verhoeven’s neo-noir with a famous star turn by Sharon Stone is now a favorite of many lesbian film buffs. Elle might inspire a similar interpretative morass. What’s clear, in any case, is that Paul Verhoeven, a master provocateur, has never made a boring movie.