Paul Verhoeven has a long history of stoking controversy and lurid entertainment. From his start in Dutch films of the 1970’s and 80’s (Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man) to his turn in Hollywood with action movies that also worked as satires in Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers- love him or hate him, his filmography stands tall because it is the work of a brass, bold provocateur, unafraid to embrace his particular fetishes and delights in full view of those who may be shocked, outraged, amused or befuddled, but never bored. From his 90’s bombs in Showgirls and Hollow Man (when you go big you can also miss big), he returned to Europe with a return to form in 2006’s Black Book, and his new film Elle, sees the 77-year-old at the peak of his craft, having lost none of his edge or brashness in his daring to go in on some dark, twisted material.
Elle is many things. A black comedy, a revenge thriller, a whodunit, and most of all, a showcase for Isabelle Huppert, the legendary 63-year-old French actress who embraces the chance to take on a role no American actress would. She plays Michele, a middle-aged Parisian woman whom we drop in on being violently raped in her own home by an intruder in a ski mask in the middle of the day. From that shocking moment onward we stay with her as she reacts both inwardly and outwardly to the act committed against her, and we explore the drama of her life and her relationship with the people in it. At first, Michele’s reaction seems odd, but as we come to know how she relates to others and her own traumatic life story, her sense of control, both of herself and those around her comes into focus in vivid interactions. Her reaction to being victimized slowly becomes more comprehensible, if still mysterious, and then eventually a dark peek into the sexuality of one unique and terrifying woman.
This is a movie that makes you feel uncomfortable as you watch it. Verhoeven jerks us around with a story that we’re never quite sure we know the direction of, mixing and matching genre elements as he sees fit. But given his penchant for entertainment at all times, this is not an inaccessible film in spite of the subject matter. At over two hours, it moves at a brisk pace with scenes of rabid fire humor, most barbs sprung from the mouth of Michele herself, who is at turns fierce, sarcastic, cold, mean, and directs her venom towards everyone, from her ex-husband to her son, mother, best friend, lover and employees. No one is spared her from her dominance, a characteristic that makes a twisted comeback when the identity of her attacker is revealed. Huppert is a ferocious presence, one that can handle and turn any situation on its head, while watching with glee and amusement as you try to wriggle away from her grasp. She’s not exactly likable and this is not exactly a likable movie, but all in all, you cannot turn your eyes away from it whatever your feelings, be they horror, fascination or disgust. Maybe all at once. And maybe that’s a good thing.
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