Although Paul Verhoeven's Hollywood heyday is far behind him, the Dutch provocateur, now 78, is still reveling in his obsessions with sex, violence, betrayal, depravity, and dark humor with his latest feature Elle.
The opening scene sets the tone, as the camera opens on Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), co-founder of a Paris video game company, being raped by an intruder in her flat. Afterwards, she has her locks changed and looks into buying various weapons, but otherwise remains oddly composed.
We learn early on that Michèle doesn't report the rape to the police because her family has a pretty big skeleton in its closet: a horrific crime, courtesy of her father, that is eventually revealed, though the film is in no hurry to do so. Yet although Michèle spends less time on her trauma than she does on her crazy mother, her crazy son and his crazy girlfriend, and all her baggage-laden friends, lovers, and coworkers, both the rape and her father's past haunt every scene.
Without spoiling anything, what surprises most about Elle is not who Michèle's attacker is, but how she reacts once she finds out. The way the film handles the subject of rape may put some viewers off; frankly, the story feels like something out of Pedro Almodóvar. (American horror screenwriter David Birke adapted Philippe Djian's original novel.) It's certainly not a contender for a Lifetime Movie of the Week.
Like most Paul Verhoeven films, Elle is part serious genre picture and part guilty pleasure. Huppert is superb, as usual, and Anne Dudley's throwback score is stirring. There is some real tension in between the slice-of-life scenes, with a couple of winking jump scares and one moment so frightening that I literally shook in my seat. Verhoeven hasn't abandoned all his Hollywood theatrics, even if we're a long way from Showgirls.
In the end, Elle may have nothing more to say than, We live in a strange world, and people sometimes have inexplicable and grotesque urges. What else can we do but accept this and live our lives? That Michèle herself understands all this makes her, in the worldview of Paul Verhoeven, a sort of role model.