Paul Verhoeven has had an interesting, varied career in Hollywood, one in which he has more or less done whatever he wants and everyone just had to deal with it. Sometimes this made for satirical, biting science fiction (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) or lurid pulp (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Hollow Man). He also has made nearly as many films in his native Dutch, which are less well known than his studio output. Elle feels like a hybrid of those two schools of filmmaking. It's a film that is just as satirical and cynical as Verhoeven's American work but also one that tackles with the sort of difficult subject matter that attracts European filmmakers but mostly eludes American ones. It's one of the best movies of the year, although if it were a person, it would probably sneer down its nose at such a bourgeois designation.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is an executive at a video game developer that specializes in sexually violent fantasy games, like if World of Warcraft, Leisure Suit Larry and Heavy Rain had a baby. She's a divorcee who lives alone in a swank apartment, which gets broken into by a masked man who assaults and rapes her. Michele spends the rest of the film attempting to suss out the identity of her assailant, intentionally neglecting to tell her dim son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), what has happened to her. In fact, Michele continues with her life as if nothing has happened, only succumbing to occasional, vivid flashbacks of the grim event.
Huppert is ideal casting for this role. She is an actress who has built a career around steeliness, demonstrating time and again that she is not one to mess with (I recall her in White Material as a plantation owner in war-torn Africa who refuses to leave her coffee plants). She balances the extremely difficult task of being a victim and an individual who has no intention of allowing her trauma to best her. And because this is a Verhoeven joint, we get plenty of opportunities to view (but certainly not revel in) the savagery that punctuates this film. Like her character in The Piano Teacher, Huppert's Michele is a sexually complicated woman, someone who enjoys wielding her power over men but who also doesn't mind being dominated herself. So when you introduce non-consensual sex into the equation, her subsequent motivations are far more muddled than you might expect from a victim in her position.
Based on the novel, Oh..., by Philippe Djian (a man), adapted by David Birke (another man) and directed by Verhoeven (a third man), it's a miracle that Elle doesn't trip up on its gender politics much at all. Not that the film isn't dealing with thorny subject matter in an approach that can be only described as grandiose, but it lacks the kind of ickiness you may dread when hearing about such a movie. Add to that the fact that its protagonist is 63 years old and you have a topic that is little, if ever, represented in cinema, despite its real-life prevalence. But Elle is not a message movie; it's too brazenly specific and complicated to just be that. You may not even particularly like Michele as she goes about her business in the questionable way she does. There is no question that no one deserves what has happened to her--no one does, ever--but she is a person who flirts with danger in almost all aspects of her life.
Huppert received her first Cesar (think the Oscars, but French) in 1976, when she was 23. Since then, she's been nominated an additional 14 times, winning only once for La ceremonie in 1996. So she's sort of like the French Meryl Streep. Impossibly, she's never been nominated for an Academy Award, and has only just recently landed a Golden Globe nod. I'm not sure whether this year will be the first, but I have a feeling it will be. Not that the Oscars matter at all, but when a performer as accomplished as she goes unnoticed for this long, it starts to get annoying, particularly when the person poised as her main competition, Natalie Portman (already an Oscar-winner), is talented but only in a very limited way.
Oh yeah, this movie's in French, so there's subtitles. I hope that's not a deal-breaker for you. If so, you could always, you know, go to hell.