Elle is a film that might easily be labeled provocative. That’s partially due to its subject matter—it’s about the aftermath of a rape—but also due to the reputation of its director. Paul Verhoeven is perhaps the premier provocateur of his generation, an iconoclast who made his way into the Hollywood system and then exposed its cockeyed values from within. His American films of the late ’80s and ’90s, most notably RoboCop and Total Recall, are bold, overtly stylized genre pictures that operate entirely in a figurative realm, in an allegorical space where Verhoeven can indulge his, and his characters, most taboo desires, while subtly undermining the same impulses that make those desires profitable at the box office. His slick, empty surfaces mask a deep understanding of greed, consumerism, and corporatism; it is this subversive tendency that has made him so beloved among a certain set of cinephiles. He’s the ultimate bait-and-switch artist.
What’s most surprising about Elle, then, is that it does not at all exist in that same figurative realm. There’s no bait-and-switch; its portrayal of Michelle (Isabelle Huppert, great as always), a woman dealing with her sexual assault by an unknown assailant, is fairly straightforward in its psychology. Verhoeven’s formal register here is naturalistic—simple cuts and compositions attentive to blocking, performance, and rhythm—rather than in-your-face and decadent. This change may be due to a change of location; Elle was made independently in France, outside the influence of the Hollywood machine. However, it also seems to arise from this particular narrative’s needs. Placing his usual allegorical lens over the protagonist’s attempts to regain control in her life after the trauma would reduce her to a representative figure. She would become a symbol rather than the full and complex human being she is, her decisions indicative of some larger cultural point rather than the desires of one woman.
Of course, Verhoeven is not operating entirely outside his discomfiting comfort zone. The opening, which shows us the act of assault through the dehumanized, uncaring gaze of a cat, is as deeply uncomfortable as anything Verhoeven has ever done (the classical music that scores the sequence may be one of the few missteps in the film—juxtaposing pleasant classical music with obscene violence is trite and rarely thoughtful). Another way Elle connects to Verhoeven’s other work is through Michelle’s job at a video game production company, with Verhoeven using her occupation to slip into his usual critiques of sexism and violence in media.
Still, the many diversions and disparate strands of the narrative, many seemingly unconnected to the central conflict, provide new ground for Verhoeven to explore the rhythms of human behavior and interaction without any ulterior motives. The scenes involving Michelle’s large, dysfunctional family often feel more like something out of a film by Desplechin than one by Verhoeven, expertly mining comedy from tense, emotionally charged interactions (the sequence in which her son’s fiancé delivers a baby results in one of the best punchlines of the year, delivered with tossed-off perfection by Huppert). In addition to its function as comic relief (though the film is surprisingly funny throughout, even when tackling the central subject matter), these scenes allow a portrait of sexual assault victims as humans whose lives continue outside the context of their trauma. Michelle was a mother, a daughter, a lover before, and she remains one after, even as her assault begins to affect her behavior in unexpected ways.
This all-encompassing portrait of Michelle’s life also allows for a particular worldview to emerge. The rape at the beginning of the film is not an isolated incident, but part of an inescapable cycle of male violence. Every man in the film is violent, in some manner, and yet they are also all pathetic, emasculated, the punchlines to every joke. The women, on the other hand, are confident and strong-willed. Where rape is so often framed as a female loss of power, the power dynamics in this film are clear; the women are in control and only temporarily challenged in their position by male acts of aggression. If Verhoeven acknowledges that to be a woman in the world is to accept the inevitable presence of violent men in one’s life, then he also acknowledges how one can rise above the cycle by refusing to fall into it and rejecting violence as a means of expression. The final shot of the film, two women walking side by side, laughing, presents a kind of utopic vision of a matriarchal world. In typical Verhoeven fashion, they’re walking through a graveyard.