Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Over the last 20 years Paul Verhoeven has displayed a fascination for put-through-the-wringer women. He likes their defiant glamour and their steadfastness in the face of chaos. In “Showgirls,” “Black Book,” and now “Elle” one has the sense he’s using them as lightning rods for his roiling artistic impulses, impulses that might cause his movies to atomize absent the repositories represented by his heroines. Like the authors of romance fiction and Brian De Palma, Verhoeven knows that women are richest in extremis, that their complexities are best revealed through trauma. It’s not mere sensation he’s after; he’s working towards something more elemental. Where “Showgirls” was consciously trashy, a travesty of a travesty, and “Black Book” was chic in the classic Hollywood manner, “Elle” has the austerity and distance of an art film (its tone is reminiscent of the work of Catherine Breillat or Olivier Assayas). It’s the most composed thing Verhoeven has done, a fact which may account for its positive reception.
How else to explain such a reception? Many of those who normally dismiss Verhoeven’s work as grotesque or crude have praised “Elle” as one of the best movies of 2016. Perhaps the commentators haven’t noticed that Verhoeven and lead actress Isabelle Huppert have done everything in their power to offend them. Though “Elle” is dressed up as a thriller, its motives are those of a woman’s picture — it’s closer to “Stella Dallas” than “Psycho.” The whodunit that runs through the narrative is interesting, but it’s merely a form on which Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (adapting a novel by Philippe Dijan) hang a melodramatic essay on the topics of sex, violence, and relationships. Possibly it’s this decentralized approach that throws the trigger brigade for a loop. They can’t determine what the movie is about, so they fall back on appreciating its poise and Huppert’s courageous performance. But though Verhoeven is drawn to satire, he’s not a political filmmaker; his movies don’t make simplistic points. And I think the suggestiveness of “Elle” constitutes its own form of content. Its unresolvedness is in the service of a vision.
Huppert’s Michele Leblanc heads a company that produces video games. She’s the modern independent woman, the woman who imagines that she reorders civilization through her actions — or perhaps her very being. The atraditional city of the 21st Century is an environment in which such a woman thrives, but her standing is without roots. This is especially true of Michele: At an early age her place in traditional society was obliterated by her father, whose serial murders, in which he involved Michele, made pariahs of his family. The specter of paternal violence hangs over Michele; sometimes if even seems to animate her. Random Parisians insult her upon recognizing her, her marriage foundered in the wake of a spat that turned physical, and her sexual proclivities tend toward the rough — even the games she produces have violent sexual overtones. When Michele’s mother (a very amusing Judith Magre) suggests that the crimes of Michele’s father are responsible for the entropy that has overtaken her life, Verhoeven immediately cuts to a bloody sequence in which Michele fantasizes about brutally smashing the skull of an attacker. It’s the one moment in the picture in which she’s able to step fully outside of her victimization.
Verhoeven does all he can to foreground both Michele’s persecution and her masterful negotiation of it. The movie opens with a shocking scene in which she is raped on the floor of her living room, after which she calmly proceeds with the rest of her day. There’s defiance in this, but also a kind of participation. As Michele ponders the identify of her masked attacker, and Verhoeven and Birke tease us with possibilities, one gets the sense she’s not investigating the crime so much as flirting with it. There’s no shortage of suspects: Nearly all the men in Michele’s life are connected to her through sex, and the one who isn’t — a neighbor who is a practicing Catholic — is the object of her amorous machinations. (In one of the movie’s most suggestive scenes, she vigorously masturbates while watching him and his wife install a nativity scene in their front yard.) Even the character of Michele’s son, Vincent, is loaded with Oedipal suggestiveness. As mothers will, Michele projects her desires onto Vincent’s spoiled girlfriend, and she’s disturbed more by her jealousy than her dissatisfaction. Her genes are jealous too: She’s painfully aware that Vincent has been cuckolded.
The relentless focus on sex, violence, family, and heredity makes “Elle” feel something like Greek theater — more Euripides than Eszterhas. Huppert’s performance, at turns grave and coquettish, is certainly the stuff of great drama. Her composure is almost flamboyant in its delicacy; there’s never a moment when you’re not fully aware of the extent to which her resolve is an outgrowth of a quivering vulnerability. And it’s something of a miracle that she’s able to project her analytical qualities onto the material, to make the movie feel as though it’s poring over itself, rearranging its shards to proffer new meanings, new suggestions.
Verhoeven declines to dramatize any particular suggestion at the expense of another. He’s more interested in the way Michele assimilates all of them while maintaining the face she displays to the world. Ultimately, the movie asks: What strange amalgams are we? To what extent is civilization a front for our most primal impulses? Michele, particularly in the movie’s quiet moments, when she’s comforting an injured bird or fixing a cup of tea, seems absorbed by these very questions.