I’m in two minds about Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. On the one hand he’s a populist who creates glossy material with a sly political message. He has a way of giving the finger to various aspects of unsavoury capitalism. On the other hand, he’s a hit and miss formula director with a basic technical skill. Fans might call him a provocateur. To get an idea of his worth I read up on his early career.
He’s a former math and physics student who decided movies make more sense and offered more money if you make ’em good. Rutger Hauer was one of his earliest actor discoveries when he began his film career in Holland. Verhoeven claims he’s spent most of his time cine-psychoanalyzing the relationship between sex and violence, pulp and profundity, and there’s a lot of truth in that boast. His films are full of warped sexual habits. You could say he’s dedicated his career to sifting through some pretty bad material to extract ugly truths.
Lately his career seemed to peter out. Excluding the 53-minute audience-participation stunt Tricked, the septuagenarian director hasn’t made a feature film since Black Book in 2006. Then again, even the most successful directors go out of fashion at least once in their life. Hitchcock is a good example. Psycho revived his career, but it ended with a bad taste squalid film set in cockney London, Peeping Tom. It also showed he was way out of date. It still used old-fashioned painted backcloths.
Verhoeven’s new film, Elle, adapted by David Birke from Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, is, in a way, Verhoeven’s look back at his career. It stars Isabelle Huppert as a rape survivor named Michèle, a former literary editor who now develops video games about goblins and trolls, (not the Internet kind) concoctions conjured from absorbing the work of Tolkien and the Marquis de Sade.
Just as Verhoeven uses lowbrow genres to create scathing satires of capitalism (RoboCop) and fascism (Starship Troopers), Michèle uses fetid video games to expose nasty truths about the darkest human desires.
Her monsters hate looking into the face of their victims, just a any human rapist will stalk their victim and grab them. Her monsters violate women from behind with writhing tendrils, their faces contorted into drooling snot and saliva. And in that she’s no feminist. She creates stories in which women enjoy being ravished.
She demands that her staff make the attacks fiercer, the women’s faces more contorted with orgasmic pleasure. She calls one assault “the boner moment.” She wants immersion, for the player to feel “hot, sticky blood on their hands.” Her employees are not happy but they do as they’re told.
Elle premiered last May at Cannes where Huppert was touted as a Best Actress contender. She didn’t get that honour. However, Huppert has taken home the award twice. No actress has matched her 15 César nominations. And Huppert has worked with is a murderers’ row of world-cinema heavies: Otto Preminger, Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Cimino, Maurice Pialat, Hal Hartley, Olivier Assayas, Raúl Ruiz, Michael Haneke, Hong Sang-soo, Catherine Breillat.
Huppert is an all-too-rare exception to the rule of actresses older than 40 receiving roles worthy of their talent. And unlike so many American and Australian female stars she has that quality of the old school, the ability to move a man to tears, as well as women. When she appears on the screen she brings with her real life.
Elle is concerned with obsession and control. It opens with a closeup of a cat, the symbol of female guile and sensuality, here unperturbed and docile. For once, Verhoeven ditches the tasteless and graphic and offers us imagination: we hear a violent struggle which the cat watches passively, unperturbed. This is how we meet Michèle – prone, on a floor on her back, her dress slit open. We don’t see the rape, just the end of the incident, from afar, a single static shot that frames the supine bodies in a doorway. (Later on a second rape is recorded but shrouded in darkness.)
The rape is presented to us in flashback. Michèle’s reaction is torpid and nonchalant- did she welcome it? Was it a lover? Is this how she enjoys sex? She orders sushi as if nothing has happened, and her laconic explanation to friends is, simply, “I guess I was raped”.
But the memory and the trauma she’s experience begins to play on her mind. In a daydream she takes revenge on her rapist’s skull until it’s a bloody mass. As she returns to reality, a sly grin or is it grimace, take the place of a frown. Brutal violence usurped by a smile is maybe the defining idea of the film. You beat your enemy by hiding your fear and smiling at the attacker.
If you analyse what you’re seeing you’ll see a film that’s a burlesque of manners and mannerisms, laced with mordant humour.
The way the film has been marketed is an insult, both to cast and writer. It depicts the story as a “rape revenge thriller.” Elle is not a thriller, not a female slasher movie, nor concerned with petty revenge. Huppert feels Elle is “a human comedy.” For example, Verhoeven juxtaposes scenes of sexual depravity with a farcical Christmas dinner rife with familial bickering, but a ‘comedy’? I’m not so sure.
I’d say the story is a critique on an aspect of hypocritical bourgeois life, the lurid sexual couplings that go one behind closed curtains; the ease with which a man can debauch a women he says he loves and cares about. It amounts to an attack on privileged elite. Verhoeven has called it “very French”. The comedy, for what it is, is ink black. It’s as dark and dense as un gâteau au chocolat.
But the story isn’t one-dimensional. There’s a highly sophisticated backstory for Michèle. And this above all else is the element that gives the film depth, and surely attracted Huppert to it. Verhoeven reveals very slowly, in almost casual asides, the wanton violence that ruined his heroine’s childhood and influenced her adult life. One day her father, a proud and pious Christian, who embellished the foreheads of the local kids with ash crosses, massacred the community he lived among. He embroiled Michèle in the horrendous affair by having her help him burn the evidence. The memory clings to her like the smell of new-gutted fish. Her father remains a dominating presence over her, even as he withers away in jail decades later.
Though successful, we meet Michèle living a life replete with unavailing men, from her oafish son to her clingy loser of an ex-husband, to her best friend’s husband with whom she’s sleeping. The men around her show their weakness in hostility of one sort or another, like the insolent employee who challenges her in front of her staff. Weak men not in full control of their lives who resort to variations of violence has been a theme in all the films I’ve seen of Verhoeven, beginning with Robocop. In Elle, the men, all inept, depend on Michèle. They’re dull, second-raters.
I read that the novel is a “dissection of forgiveness and penance Christian-style”. If so, Verhoeven has captured that quality well. Some men are vile but we accept their nature, willing to absolve them.
Elle is unrepentantly a Paul Verhoeven film, but it owes everything to Huppert whose comic delivery has never gotten as much renown as her more solemn work; simpatico with Verhoeven’s warped sense of humor, she makes the film a serious work of art.
- Star rating: Three and a half
- Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny,
- Director: Paul Verhoeven
- Writers: David Birke, Philippe Djian
- Music: Anne Dudley
- Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
- Duration: 2 hours 10 minutes