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Paul Verhoeven’s Elle

Paul Verhoeven, Elle, 2016, video, color, sound, 131 minutes. Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert).

IN PAUL VERHOEVEN’S twisted Christmastime thriller Elle, Isabelle Huppert is the cold and cruel Michèle Leblanc, an impeccably dressed executive of a video-game design company in Paris. She’s also a mother who acidly bankrolls the false starts of her loser millennial son and his hot pregnant girlfriend, and she’s the daughter of a famous mass killer rotting in prison. She’s single—divorced—sleeping with her best friend’s (and business partner’s) husband while playing elaborate head games with her ex and nursing a dangerous crush. In one amazing scene, Michèle jerks off while peering through binoculars from her son’s old bedroom window at her ruggedly handsome stockbroker neighbor as he assembles a nativity scene in his garden with his pious blond wife. Michèle’s dark history and surprising proclivities are revealed at an exciting clip throughout this tense narrative, but we know nothing of them when she is raped—the first time—in her elegant home, which is how the movie begins.

The screen is dark when we hear the grunts of a violent struggle. Then we see Michèle in distress. She has been backhanded, exposed, and overpowered by a man in a ridiculous burglar costume: He wears all black and a ski mask as sunlight streams through the glass double doors that lead out to a green swath of manicured backyard. In an ironic flourish characteristic of Verhoeven’s often ingenious brand of social satire, Michèle’s beautiful gray cat watches the action, impassively.

A visionary businesswoman who succeeds at everything she does (except relationships, and not being raped), Michèle takes charge of her own sleuthing and self-defense. She orders a battery of STD tests and changes the locks; she purchases pepper spray and a scary little ax. She’s less anguished and fearful than angry and inconvenienced: It’s crucial that this unexpected game of cat and mouse not interfere with the launch of her company’s next hyperviolent product. When a terrorizing video clip is e-mailed to her entire staff—her smiling face superimposed on the face of one of the game’s animated female characters as it is vaginally impaled by a supernatural tentacle—Michèle deputizes her nerdiest underling to find its creator, but with a gut feeling and a few clicks she herself finds the responsible party, whom, after a quick calculation, she decides not to fire.

This perilously campy film, in which unfunny things are often played for uncomfortable or cynical laughs, is committed to ambiguity as both narrative aesthetic and moral safety zone—or moral hazard. Elle veers wildly off its rape-revenge course before dramatically righting itself (maybe), all the while denying us any certainty about its enthralling heroine’s motives. Ultimately, it also denies us the sense of a hidden logic that might keep us fully engaged with our own private puzzling and conjecture, but—thankfully—Huppert’s performance keeps us engaged with Michèle. Verhoeven was very lucky to cast the superlative French actress here. With the flicker of a smile, a tense breath, or a far-off look, she elevates a banal plot twist or saves a clumsy expository moment, injecting it with mystery and depth and assuring us that nothing is as simple as it seems.

One finds echoes here of Huppert’s remarkable performance in Michael Haneke’s harrowing psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher (2001), brilliantly adapted from the 1983 novel by Austrian feminist Elfriede Jelinek. Huppert’s character, the titular pianist Erika Kohut, is, like Michèle, a perfectionist, a control freak, a masochist, and a voyeur—and she is also brutally raped. But, in contrast to the shocking masterpiece of cultural indictment that is Erika, Michèle is a concoction of quirks and backstories. It’s as if her creators—Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke, following Philippe Djian, who wrote the novel on which the film is based—hoped that by assigning a surfeit of specificity to this powerful woman of a certain age they might avoid any distasteful political or philosophical generalities with respect to women or rape. To their credit, Michèle is rendered as complex and sympathetic, even as she embodies a stereotype of female malice with all its fascinating paradoxes. She’s frigid and voracious; naive and all-knowing; desperate for male attention as well as a lesbian; hysterically afraid of being raped, but the secret architect of her own violation—or is she? She appears to be the uncaring and levelheaded source of the chaos and destruction that has swirled around her since childhood; then again, this may be just a pernicious aspect of her victimization. Such questions constitute the real mystery of this fake whodunit, inasmuch as Michèle unmasks her rapist the second time he attacks, long before the film’s conclusion.

For all of Elle’s pretensions and easy outs, there is a lot to admire, or to be absorbed by, at least—its density of clever detail, its good looks, its interesting, jerky pacing. But Huppert is its engine and its glue, delivering remarkable performances in every scene. When inscrutable Michèle, with her perfect dark-burgundy gel nails, closes her office blinds and administers a hand job over a wastebasket, it seems a timely, iconic gesture of disdainful service/domination, a sneering executive act to contemplate as the days grow shorter and we continue to negotiate our new, culturally complicated season of the witch.

Elle opens in New York on November 11. “Total Verhoeven,” a retrospective of the films of Paul Verhoeven, will take place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, Nov. 9–23.

Musician and writer Johanna Fateman is a founding member of the band Le Tigre and a co-owner of Seagull Salon in New York.

Read the interview with Paul Verhoeven in our Summer 2000 issue.