Written by David Birke; from the novel by Philippe Djian
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s new film, Elle, is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. And kind of fun to watch. But then, that’s what you should expect from the man who made Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Showgirls. Paul Verhoeven makes strange, violent, disturbingly sexual films that can’t really be taken seriously–even when he probably wants you to take them seriously.
And that’s true whether the Dutch director is making a big-budget Hollywood movie or, as in this case, a medium-budget French art film. Elle stars the great Isabelle Huppert, who also has a reputation for making films that go over the edge.
Elle offers two main pleasures. First, Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance. I don’t think she’s capable of anything else. Second, it’s fun to see how ridiculous the movie can get. And it gets very ridiculous.
It begins with a brutal rape. A man in a ski mask is having his way with the title character on her expensive living room floor, now scattered with broken wine glasses.
Once he leaves, does she call the police? No. She takes a bubble bath. A small patch of blood rises from her groin region to surface in the suds. She doesn’t seem particularly upset.
And the rapist keeps coming back. At least two other times (not including flashbacks and fantasies) he breaks into her house and rapes her again. He also harasses her over the Internet. She tells her friends and co-workers about it, and they’re shocked that she’s so mater-of-fact about it.
In a normal film, one would assume she was suffering from PTSD. But in this one…who knows? Perhaps she likes it.
But then, Elle has a pretty strange history with violence. Her father is a mass murderer in prison for life. People still recognize her as the murderer’s daughter, and treat her as guilty by association. (Her severely botoxed mother, ugly through countless plastic surgeries, has a young hunk of a lover.)
Elle’s job also deals in violence. She runs a video game company specializing in extremely violent games–and rape is a common theme. Soon after her own experience, she tells her employees that a rape scene has to be more graphic, more violent, and sexier.
She’s one of two women running the company, filled almost entirely with male employees. Most of them hate her.
Elle has a klutzy grown son with a pregnant girlfriend. When the baby is born, the son refuses to see that he can’t possibly be the biological father.
Meanwhile, Elle’s having an affair with her business partner’s husband. She also sets her sights on a neighbor with a very religious wife and children.
To some extent, Elle works as a mystery. She tries to find the man who’s continually attacking her. (I guessed who it was early, but I was wrong. My wife guessed right.) I’m not sure if she wants his identity so she can turn him in, or so she can start an affair.
If you like weird, amoral, but well-made sleaze, you’ll probably enjoy Elle. I did. But I wouldn’t want a constant diet of this sort of thing.