Upon his entrance into Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven has made some of the most intelligent social satires of the period within the guise of science fiction action films through RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. It wasn’t long within these years when he decided to take a far more perverse direction with his work when he started collaborating with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas with the sleazy Basic Instinct and Showgirls. But this perverse route towards his Hollywood period isn’t unfamiliar to him as shown by his earlier works in his native Netherlands. Verhoeven’s films have never been a stranger to controversy and a case study with his most recent outing, Elle, only more of this dementia his works are characterized by allow itself to shine once again. Purely Verhoeven all in the very best sense of the word: sly, sleazy, exciting, no wonder I’ve rarely ever disliked anything with his name. A ten year wait has come between this and Black Book, and with Elle the wait certainly was worth the while.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a gaming company where the male employees share a mutual lust or resentment towards her. At home, she is raped, but she also refuses to alert greater authorities after repression from her own personal traumas – so she decides to go confront the stalker herself. Paul Verhoeven is laying out Elle as a cat-and-mouse game, for it makes clear the sort of character that Michèle is upon outlook. She isn’t a woman who wants to allow herself to become a victim inside of a society that would expect a sort of action coming out of her from her own end. Paul Verhoeven isn’t telling the classic rape-and-revenge story in the same manner of Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45, but by manner of contradiction it’s clear enough that Elle is already a clever social satire about gender roles within society, funny in a very Buñuel-esque manner too.
The film opens amidst its lead Michèle, suffering at the hands of a rape. This is crucial to a ghost that defines her character, for she’s an assertive and manipulative CEO, whose own behavior could only have been founded upon the results of trauma. Verhoeven isn’t afraid to shy away from even the most sickening moments that define the sort of character that she is, but that’s part of why she’s hypnotizing at the film’s core. One expects her to act a certain way at the hands of suffering a rape, but she isn’t allowing herself to become a victim. But it’s already hypnotic enough that Michèle is a complicated figure in herself, again in a very sleazy, Verhoeven-esque manner, but her own route is still something that she remains in control of. The apt titling, “Elle,” which means “she” in the English language, is pointing towards a singular example, jumping out against how people can take the word and use it as a means of talking about an entire population. Michèle doesn’t seek reduction, for at the center she still feels like a human who knows limitations yet refuses to conform.
If Starship Troopers managed to show a more humorous side to Paul Verhoeven’s work because of the bluntness of its satire within a science fiction setting, then it’s perhaps only fitting that Elle almost works in the same vein, but for the more sexually-charged films of his very own. One can sense that this work is so openly exploitative, but not without meaning. Pieces of the puzzle come into place when one considers the sort of business it is in which Michèle is running (she’s the CEO of a gaming company, and the images of games she is working on are sexually exploitative in nature), drawing back to gamergate. It only hit me that Paul Verhoeven was indeed making Elle as a means of poking fun at what gamergate would expect from what they would imagine gamers would “want” in their own control.
But at the center of everything, Isabelle Huppert is revelatory. If there was any more proof now that she is truly one of the best actresses working today, then one would not need to look any further from the powerhouse she is presenting in Elle. Huppert isn’t merely acting in such a complicated manner like Michèle is, but she’s already become the figure that she is. Michèle isn’t allowing succumbing to pain in order to become the sort of person that society would expect her to be, but it perhaps is already clear enough what it is that Verhoeven wants to establish about a world that openly accepts misogyny as if it isn’t existent. Everything has come at a routine and the world has only presented itself all the more as monotonous, but if Verhoeven made Elle as a cat-and-mouse thriller about victim chasing the attacker, then odds are it would only remain thin, undermining the efforts that Huppert is placing as she is playing Michèle.
I still have my own gripes with where it seems Elle is going with one story thread to another for the occasional meandering leaves me the urge to doze off, yet it still rings with all of the cleverness that I’ve loved from Paul Verhoeven over all the years. It’s an openly demented piece of social satire, funny and yet scarring in its own outlook of the world it is set within, but it shouldn’t be any surprise that Paul Verhoeven of all people would be lacing all of this within Elle if the film weren’t clever enough on its own. It’s a film that is set within a misogynistic world where audiences would only want a woman like Michèle to confront her own traumas in a certain way, lashing back towards what the film is stating about gender roles in the society we are living within. But it’s interesting to think that this could have even been made as an allegory about Gamergate, for what they seek is exploitation in what seems unprotected, only to find everything turned back on its own self in the end.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via SBS Distribution.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by David Birke, from Oh…. by Philippe Dijan
Produced by Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt
Starring Isabelle Huppert
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 130 minutes