Paul Verhoeven is a masterful satirist because he’s also kind of a terrible satirist. For all of the trenchant insights into sexual violence and the roots of fascism in the Dutch master’s films, there is always a curious element of titillation in his work—he’s getting off on it on some level. It’s an unclean and deeply personal and borderline schizophrenic satire, and instead of hectoring and finger-wagging from a safe distance, Verhoeven identifies with the damned and demented.
That discomforting, dangerous, more Christ-than-Christian point-of-view was enough to sully Verhoeven’s reputation among pearl-clutching establishment critics during his heyday, but thankfully subsequent waves of young and outsider critics helped restore the faith. Robocop is American cinema canon by this point, Starship Troopers is close enough for disco, and even his brilliant showbiz musical epic Showgirls has started to receive a richly deserved reevaluation.
The only fear was that his acclaim might not overlap with his relevance. After all, not counting the reality show byproduct Tricked, Elle is only Verhoeven’s second feature since 2000’s Hollow Man. But lo and behold, Elle is the most Verhoeven-y thing you could want: perverse, funny, disturbing, penetrating, accessible, inscrutable and insane. It’s the work of a true master operating at the height of his powers, a devastating and insidiously dense piece, with a stunner of a lead performance from Isabelle Huppert.
Huppert plays Michéle Leblanc, a video game executive and social pariah who gets violently raped in her home by a masked man in the opening scene. We hear the sounds of breaking glass and screaming before the first shot fades in, and when it does Verhoeven shows us a cat serenely observing the climax of the act, rather than the act itself. From there, Verhoeven proceeds to regard Michéle’s increasingly perilous and complicated world with that same feline mix of alien empathy, clinical pitilessness and moral nonjudgment.
After her attacker departs the scene, Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (expertly adapting a novel by Philippe Djian) spend the next 15 minutes fleshing out the complexities of Michéle’s world, especially the weak and predatory men who may have shaped her into a psychopath, before finally flashing back to the details of the rape. Elle is exploitative in all the right ways—i.e., as a means of carving beneath the false, polite surfaces of civility to find some kind of meaning in a chaotic world—without neglecting Michéle’s obscene trauma.
Michéle takes steps to discover the identity of her rapist, and daydreams about crushing his skull, but this not your standard victim revenge story. The reveal of the rapist only ends the second act, and that final third is where Verhoeven really layers on the Hitchcock-ian kink. This is the fourth great Huppert performance in the last year, although the rest came in lesser works. With Elle, Verhoeven gives Huppert a role worthy of her honesty and unpredictability—she’s practically incapable of falseness, the perfect star for a film obsessed with ugly truths.