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Is ‘Elle’ set to be this year's most controversial film?

Breaking down Paul Verhoeven's take on rape, revenge, eroticism, and humour

Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Elle, opens on an amazing gag: a closeup on the face of a humourless housecat as it watches a sex act unfold, heard offscreen. The camera pans and we realize we’ve played ourselves – a woman is being violently raped by a masked assailant who’s broken into her home. Teacups shatter. Blood is everywhere. Like the housecat's gaze, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s lens is unflinching. It’s visceral, inelegant, uncomfortable, and traumatic. As far as opening sequences go, it’s a wild one. Buckle your seatbelts, Verhoeven might be saying, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, Elle tells the story of Michèle Leblanc, the imperious owner and CEO of a successful video game company who finds herself victimized by a stranger and who takes it upon herself to seek retribution. She does so with the same vicious sense of superiority she relies on in navigating a variety of humorous personal dramas. Her disappointment of a son relies on her to support himself as well as his overbearing pregnant fiancée, while her elderly mother makes plans to marry a much younger gigolo who’s taking advantage of her for her money.

Meanwhile, Michèle strings her ex-husband along while having an affair with her best friend’s spouse. The daughter of a famous local serial killer, Michèle finds getting harassed and attacked by strangers in public to be a regular occurrence. Through these encounters, we learn that her steely, morally bankrupt demeanor is likely the result of a life lived in the shadow of evil. We’re all but led to wonder if something sinister runs through her very veins. Although she suffers at the hands of her rapist, Michèle refuses to be a victim because she’s more accustomed to being the villain. (“I suppose I was raped,” she indifferently tells her friends in a restaurant, as a waiter serves them a magnum of champagne. “Perhaps wait a minute before popping that,” one dinner guest says by way of appalled response.) It’s a dichotomy Paul Verhoeven explores with exhilarating glee, anchored in Isabelle Huppert’s performance, which has been hailed by critics across the globe as the very best at the movies this year.

Unwilling to go to the police, Huppert’s Michèle embarks on a dangerous investigation into the identity of her attacker, as the mystery man continues to stalk her and toy with her everywhere from her office to her home. Locked in a mutual pursuit, the two parties draw increasingly closer to one another, leading them into a disturbing vortex of sexual attraction and manipulation that leaves the audience confused about whether to be outraged, titillated, or both. Is it possible that this exquisitely offensive character is actually turned on by her own rape? This question is one that has baffled critics who are otherwise apt to praise the film with high marks. Boasting 92% freshness on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, critics agree that it is “galvanic”, “electrifying”, “startlingly enjoyable”, “high-risk”, and “a career high for Paul Verhoeven.” Although, more than one writer has pointed out that it is “guaranteed to spark debate,” without opting to participate in such conversations.

In fact, so far, Elle has managed to evade them altogether, although there seems to be a hanging question over whether or not the movie will strike such an ebullient chord with sensitive American and English audiences. Isabelle Huppert, long considered the Meryl Streep of France, should be a sure shot for an Oscar nomination but pundits are questioning whether the morally dubious subject matter will derail her chances. This is, after all, the same Oscar cycle during which the actor/producer/director Nate Parker has seen his film Birth of a Nation eclipsed by a revived interest in rape allegations he faced as a college student at Penn State (he was exonerated on all charges at the time. The accuser has since committed suicide.). Is it possible in the same year for one actor’s past accusations of rape to disqualify him from a nomination while a comedic thriller about rape catapults another to an eventual gold statue? It seems that although these types of questions are circulating in the ether, Elle has completely avoided the firing squad. One reason for this may be because the movie itself is so incredibly well-executed.

“We’re all but led to wonder if something sinister runs through her very veins. Although she suffers at the hands of her rapist, Michèle refuses to be a victim because she’s more accustomed to being the villain.”

Paul Verhoeven is the director who electrified cinemas in the 80s and early 90s with films like Total Recall and Basic Instinct. He went on to spawn the abominably sleazy Showgirls and the shallow sci-fi extremity Starship Troopers – films that were each eviscerated by critics in their time and which have now come into their own as cult classics that comprise a masterclass in pure camp. Indiewire’s brilliant Eric Kohn positions Elle as closest in form to Verhoeven’s 1973 film Turkish Delight.

Personally, I see it as an elevated cousin to the over-stylized and impeccably cheesy Basic Instinct. With Elle, Verhoeven proves that contemporary adult films ought to broach, question, or even challenge difficult topics like rape. Films that take such risks and push us outside of our comfort zones are the ones that earn a place in history and survive our shortened attention spans. That he so deftly executes his subversion of our preconceived morality and transforms shock value into an elegantly sustained white-knuckle thrill ride is a feat of artistry and, I’d argue, bravery. The fact that it’s the funniest movie I’ve seen this year is mindblowing. Michèle turns the tables on her trauma as a self-possessed reflex and subverts victimization for something decidedly more venomous. This is something that could be questioned as misogynistic, but it struck me as refreshingly feminist. Not all victims of sexual assault are required to react in the same way. Rape fantasy is also something that’s undoubtedly very real – Google it if you want a crash course in the fetishization of trauma.

The character of Michèle is so deliciously complex that Verhoeven says he was inspired to make Elle a French film with Huppert because he found it difficult to find an American actress bold enough to tackle the role. Making audiences uncomfortable was undoubtedly part of Verhoeven’s design. Huppert deserves accolades for being such a fearless and pitch-perfect partner in crime.

Elle plays the London Film Festival October 8 and the New York Film Festival October 14