‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all’, says Isabel Huppert in Elle. As the eponymous lead in Paul Verhoeven’s finest film to date, her comment pithily sums up its provocative central query: why can’t a comedy of manners also be a story about a woman’s sexual adventures with her rapist?
Yes, Verhoeven goes there. In fact, he forces us to witness Elle being raped by a masked man from the film’s opening scene. What happens afterwards though is just as unnerving: treating the event as an inconvenience, Elle cleans up, takes a bath, and goes to work. If she’s at all traumatised, you’d hardly know it.
But then Elle is the epitome of bourgeois multi-taking. CEO at a videogame company (whose latest product she criticises for not having graphic enough rape scenes), she’s also juggling her feckless soon-to-be-a-dad son, an affair with her best friend’s husband, and an elderly mother enjoying her senescence by bonking tomboys.
Verhoeven executes this tangled, pseudo-farce with brilliant comic skill, to the extent that, for a film containing such explicit sexual violence, Elle is also often hilarious. Therein lies its devilishness: by planting a horrific scenario at the heart of a tale of no doubt twisted but persistent levity, Verhoeven wrongfoots us at every turn.
Not that the film is lacking for the macabre. Elle’s wilful games of cat and mouse with her rapist couldn’t occur if she’d told the police about her first assault. She refrains from doing so because her father is an infamous child serial killer whom, as a young girl, she helped.
Schlocky genre tropes thus bubble up throughout, which perhaps should be no surprise from the director of Starship Troopers. In this Elle’s provocations exceed its content to gleefully disregard the boundaries between arthouse and potboiler.
One suspects this ambiguity would have been lost if, as was originally planned, Elle had been produced in the States. Verhoeven struggled to find an American actress to take on the role though, and for that we should be thankful. Often ruthless, yet never unsympathetic, Huppert’s performance utterly scrambles ideas of victim and victimizer.
Solid turns from the supporting cast – especially Laurent Lafitte as Elle’s too good to be true neighbour, and Judith Magre as her randy mom – also help keep the film grounded even when it toys with more melodramatic happenstance.
In lesser hands this would amount to uneven showboating (looking at you, von Trier). Verhoeven takes his provocations seriously though, and so should you. Elle is unsettling, but not in ways you’d expect, a film as shameless as it is brilliantly, disturbingly fun.