Throughout his career, Paul Verhoeven has sought to push the limits between comedy and violence. The filmmaker legendarily blended the two themes together for Total Recall and RoboCop, both of which subverted ultra gore in the sci-fi genre to shock audiences into laughs. Although Elle, Verhoeven’s latest feature, is set within modern times instead of the dystopian future worlds the filmmaker is renown for, it is no less provocative, opening with its protagonist brutally raped in her apartment as a household cat idly watches by. It’s a scene of absolute terror punctuated by the casualness of the assault, a recurring trait within Elle.
The victim, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), is a wealthy middle aged Parisian and the head of a sizeable video game company. Michèle shakes off her assault and simultaneously attempts to manage the release of the group’s newest game while trying to coordinate her social life, facing a domineering mother (Judith Magre) infatuated with a gigolo less than half her age, her loserish son (Jonas Bloquet) who is unable to realize the lecherous nature of his pregnant girlfriend, and her ex-husband (Charles Berling) constantly hassling her while he is dating a young yoga teacher. Meanwhile, Michèle also embarks on an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), while slowly obsessing over her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and his mysterious background.
David Birke’s screenplay, originally written in English before Verhoeven moved the production to France, certainly seems more evocative of Hollywood screwballs than typical sexual assault thrillers. Yet despite the controversial nature of its subject matter, Verhoeven does not utilize rape for cheap shocks or gags. Rather, Elle is about its eponymous character’s attempt at maintaining a normal life after assault. Verhoeven’s stabs at dark humor don’t at all demean the film’s content or feel imbalanced next to the onscreen brutality but rather indicate the absurdity of modern life. It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s skill to pull off walk so perfectly over such a narrow rope, and Verhoeven deserves much praise for his direction.
Still, Huppert warrants the most commendation in Elle. Although Verhoeven pitched the character with Nicole Kidman in mind, Huppert fits the role perfectly. While Michèle’s sexual abuse may arouse memories of Erika in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Elle is a more lively and colorful character, punctuated by Huppert’s excellent comic timing. It’s a new turn for the veteran actress and arguably one of her best performances yet.
Some viewers may be caught off guard with Verhoeven and Huppert’s new direction yet Elle is a thoroughly compelling black comedy that is equally sidesplitting and frightening. Although not for all tastes, Elle is one of the most urgent, captivating films I’ve seen in a long time.