In 1992, Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs on the Croisette and made history. Her Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, the last film Dutch director Paul Verhoeven had in competition in Cannes, was a woman in total control of herself and the people around her. And a psychopath, but that’s beside the point. Control and manipulation of others have often been a theme in Paul Verhoeven’s films, whether in his early Dutch works (The Fourth Man, Spetters) or his American ones (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and even something like The Hollow Man plays with the idea of control). Often the characters who are in control are strong, somewhat icy women, like the aforementioned Catherine Tramell, who dominate their men and shamelessly use their sex to manipulate them.
Isabelle Huppert doesn’t have to rely on provocation to make a name for herself. She has nothing to prove anymore. Widely regarded as one of the best working actresses in the world, the string of auteurs she has worked with is jawdropping. And yet she chose to add the name of Paul Verhoeven, known for provocative, highly sexually charged, sometimes even perverse films (and just as often highly misunderstood), for a role that is provocative, and requires her to be in total control of her craft and her character, just as that character tries to hold on to the control she has over her life.
In Elle, based on the French novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, Huppert plays Michèle, the owner and head of a video game company. Cracks appear in her tough exterior when she is assaulted and raped in her own home. She gets a small taste of somebody else taking control over her, and silently vows that will never happen again. So she decides to track down her assailant, and Elle‘s impressive and deep supporting cast presents several candidates for this Hitchcockian quest with a twist. Once she has homed in on the prime suspect, a strangely perverse cat-and-mouse game between the rapist and the raped one begins, with each of them trying to obtain the upper hand, and thus control.
Michèle’s first reaction to the rape is surprising and unsettling, as she cleans up the mess and takes a bath, instead of calling the police and succumbing to the role of victim. It would be a sign of weakness a strong-willed woman like Michèle does not allow. Furthermore, as a child of a notorious mass murderer (of children, no less), she can’t take the risk of the story of her rape leaking to the press: an early scene shows her being humiliated in public by a random woman, simply because she is recognized as the ‘daughter of.’ The risk of word of her rape getting out means a risk of relinquishing control over her life.
And so she continues to pull the many strings in her life the same way she did before: running her business with her longtime friend Anna (Anne Consigny), all the while having an affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel); supporting her dimwitted son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), a clueless father-to-be with a harpy for a girlfriend; dealing with the new girlfriend (Vimala Pons) of her ex-husband (Charles Berling); managing a strained relationship with her mother (Judith Magre); and keeping a somewhat lustful eye out for her (married) neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). These are many balls to juggle, but Michèle manages to do so with sardonic wit and pleasure, constantly putting others in their place with a blunt remark left or an eyeroll right, all the while trying to suss out the identity of her attacker.
Michèle is a role that requires the utmost precision by its performer, and Isabelle Huppert applies her array of the faintest of smiles and the slightest narrowing of her gaze to create a complex character, the heroine of a story in which she isn’t exactly the most likable character, and that has her carry out quite amoral actions from time to time, not in the least when she and her attacker start to dance around each other. Even if Elle was initially developed with an American setting, and thus actress, in mind, it is unimaginable to have had any other than Huppert play this role. In a career already marked by fantastic performances, Huppert adds another one of her best in Elle, a difficult role that requires her to mix her dramatic chops with a darkly comedic character strain.
This being a Paul Verhoeven film, a man who knows that perversion and subversion lie close to each other, and who has consistently turned genre conventions on their ears throughout his career, Elle does not shy away from rather controversial acts by its protagonist. Michèle is, as said, an extremely complex character, and also a singular one. Verhoeven is not interested in creating either a clearly defined, standard victim or a woman with a rape fantasy; rather, Huppert’s is an ambiguous character who lives along sometimes blurred lines. Her demeanor is in part a shield, no doubt fueled by her childhood experience of being the daughter of a pychopathic killer. There is a harshness to her character, which makes her unpleasant, but she also has an almost arrogant wit that makes us root for her, especially because the men around her are stupid and weak. “Your stupidity was what first attracted me,” says Michèle to her lover. And the women in Elle are in many ways superior to their men anyway: Michèle’s mother has a boyfriend who is less than half her age, and IQ; the girlfriend of Michèle’s son may be a bitch, but she has him wrapped around her finger; and Anna’s husband may be cheating on her, but when Michèle stays for the night after a second rape attempt, he is relegated to the couch while she and Michèle share the bed. In a twisted way, Elle is somewhat of a female empowerment manifesto, albeit a Paul Verhoeven one, so the women are sexual creatures who are not afraid to use their sex, and who can be amoral when the situation calls for it.
But in the end, for Michèle it is all about control. She seeks out her assailant to be raped again, specifically because she does not want to be raped again. She wants to beat her rapist by offering herself, thus keeping control of her situation, while the goal of the rapist is to control her. These contradictory intentions make for an interesting, twisted relationship between the two, and certainly once we learn the identity of the attacker, which is relatively early, Michèle’s interactions with him outside their sexual encounters might seem perplexing. But this is a woman who has lost control once, is not about to let that happen again, and actively tries to retake control from the man who seized it. And she takes no prisoners to reach that goal. The rape scenes play dead serious, but they are about getting the last laugh. Elsewhere, the film is suprisingly funny, perhaps the most blatantly funny of Verhoeven’s career. In his other films, the humor is often more subliminal, but Elle‘s often highly inappropriate laughs are worn on the sleeve. The film deals with a serious issue, but isn’t afraid to see dark humor in it. Elle is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a phantasmagoric tale of monsters and maidens in which the maidens fight back. Everything is heightened, in excess, to make sure we don’t take the film too seriously, and the gallows humor is an instrument to reach that goal, and also to accentuate the seriousness of the crime itself through its absence in those scenes. In between the endlessly quotable one-liners is a perfect nugget that sums up the actions of the characters pretty niftily: shame is an emotion not strong enough to keep us from doing what we are not supposed to. This applies to the rapist, but also to Michèle, both in her turning the tables on the man who took control away from her, and in her interactions with others. She says things you probably shouldn’t say, but she is not ashamed of saying them.
And it applies to Elle‘s director too. Paul Verhoeven has once again created a lurid tale like only he can, because he is the only person knowing no shame in depicting blatant shamelessness. In Elle, with the added humor, all pieces of the puzzle fall into place to result in perhaps Verhoeven’s best, but certainly his most balanced film. It is provocative, sure, but Elle doesn’t need to uncross her legs to create discussion, the intelligent, multi-faceted treatment of the subject matter is enough. As such, Verhoeven, at 77, is still in full control himself.