After a decade long absence from filmmaking, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has returned with one of his most provocative, darkly comic social satires to date. When Verhoeven has dabbled in satire before, his intentions have been incredibly obvious. There is no way you can take films as ridiculous as Showgirls or Starship Troopers at face value, due to how blatant they are when parodying the inherent sexism of showbusiness and the idiocy of fascism, respectively.
With Elle, he hasn’t exactly made a subtle film, but he has deliberately made a work that is significantly harder to be read. After acclimatising to the problematic narrative, it soon becomes apparent that the sexually violent subject matter is handled in a way slightly more sensitive than you’d expect from a director who revels in exploitation in the same manner Verhoeven does. This isn’t to say that Elle is a tasteful film by any means – but it doesn’t appear to be either misogynist, or sexist, with the bulk of the female characters all acting as well intentioned parallels to the deeply flawed protagonist, played with joyously bitchy relish by an awards worthy Isabelle Huppert.
With an intelligent filmmaker behind the camera and one of contemporary cinema’s most reliable screen presences taking centre stage, to me it became apparent very early on that this film was intended as a satirical jab at the offensive and deeply incorrect statement by many men’s rights advocates that “women enjoy being raped”. Verhoeven doesn’t dilute depicting the impossible reality of somebody who grows to fetishise being attacked in an utterly deplorable manner.
But he also takes every available opportunity to ridicule this, by having the character of Michelle interact with bewildered friends, family and colleagues throughout, confused by her decision to not call the police, among her many other poor life choices. She is a more complex character than you’d expect from a director who takes pride in making his characters the most ridiculous, stereotypical character archetypes imaginable.
The central problem with Elle is that, although it is enjoyable and satirically challenging throughout, the central rape/revenge plot becomes infinitely less interesting as the narrative progresses. David Birke’s screenplay has a rich eye for character detail, meaning that there are multiple extended sections of twenty minutes or more where the central premise is not only never mentioned, it becomes fully irrelevant – and these are the moments the film works best.
Elle has a rich cast of supporting characters and evocative subplots that feel like they could equally be the focal point of the movie. Michelle’s elderly mother, who plans on marrying a young gigolo, as well as the ongoing tension between Michelle and her imprisoned father, a notorious serial killer (who needed a young Michelle’s help to burn his clothes after he committed the atrocities) are of equal, if not increased, interest in comparison to the central storyline – and these are just two examples from this exceptionally written piece of work. It is the rare film that might have benefited from being a TV miniseries to explore the rich supporting characters in greater detail, as well as giving deeper insight to the troubled character at the centre of it all.
In the end, Elle’s primary subject matter proves to be problematic in the sense that it gets in the way of the dark heart of the film: the blackly comic family melodrama. It feels refreshing in comparison to the trashy rape revenge storyline, which feels like a more challenging reprise of the same brand of erotic thriller Verhoeven was making back in the nineties, with the score increasingly resembling that of Basic Instinct as it moves towards the ridiculous finale. Elle is entertaining throughout, but as it ups the ante with a schlocky third act, it is hard to deny that the offbeat character drama is sorely missed.