directed by Paul Verhoeven
by Bill Chambers The first thing you hear in Elle, after Anne Dudley's giallo-worthy (and, thus, slightly misleading) overture, are some violent sex noises, but the first thing you see is a cat, a good ol' Russian blue, who is watching his owner get violated with daunting ambivalence. Meet the director. Migrating from his native Holland to France this time, Paul Verhoeven has made a movie fascinated with rape at either the best or worst cultural moment he could have chosen. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is depicted being raped several times over the course of the film by the same ski-masked stranger; my own reaction was a complicated gnarl of disgust and desensitization that led to more disgust. Eventually, I think, Michèle's relationship with her attacker becomes S&M in all but name, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Michèle is a well-to-do Parisian with a videogame company that seems to specialize in hentai (meaning you also get to see tentacle rape, Verhoeven-style). Family members--including a mother (Judith Magre) who's into much-younger men and a layabout son (Jonas Bloquet) who's fallen under the spell of a pregnant gold digger (Alice Isaaz)--orbit in close proximity despite her abrasive candor, which at one point finds her telling her friends and puppyish ex-husband (Charles Berling) about her rape over cocktails after work. They worry, but because she's the alpha dog, they probably don't worry enough.
Elle is almost reflexively a thriller--Verhoeven, Argento with a brain, can't put his genre tools away, and the result is a bit of a gilded lily, though I dread the arthouse, montage-eschewing film that could have been. This is ultimately a character study of a middle-aged woman who's interesting not only because she's managed to crawl out from under the shadow of her father, a legendary serial killer, but also because she's an antihero (she's sleeping with her bestie's husband; she's petty if not mean), something only men get to play in this day and age. (Huppert's Mona Lisa smile has perhaps never served her better.) That's why, while I do understand the outrage Elle has caused and will continue to cause, I'd hate to see the baby be thrown out with the bathwater. The rape scenes are gratuitous, of course, if mostly in number, yet there is something uniquely compelling about watching this woman navigate a power dynamic that does not conventionally favour her, especially after she identifies her attacker. Verhoeven's ability to view both parties without victimizing or demonizing either one, and to find the unlikely comedy in their strange duet, is typical but impressive; that feline curiosity of his isn't clinical detachment, but the shrewd eye of a consummate filmmaker. He still doesn't really know when to quit, though, and his trademark sarcasm is particularly heinous in an overstretched denouement that makes forgiveness look idiotic. Programme: Special Presentations