For a nineties kid like myself, the name of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven brings a lot of cinematic memories back to me. One of my first R-rated film experiences was seeing Peter Weller get blown away in Robocop and Arnie gasping for air on Mars in Total Recall before the campy awesomeness of Starship Troopers. Heck, I even snuck into the NC-17 rated Showgirls, a movie that is far too awful for the retrospective praise it gets now. It’s interesting to note that Verhoeven has only made two films in the post-2000s, 2006’s Black Book and now Elle, a film made in France with one of my favorite actresses this year, Isabelle Huppert.
The film opens, shockingly, with Huppert’s character, Michèle, being sexually assaulted by a masked man in her dining room. Rather than report it to the police, she goes and takes a bath and goes on with her day. After bringing it up nonchalantly with her ex-husband and a couple friends at dinner, she decides to try and figure out who her assailant is, against the pleading of those close to her. What ensues is a dangerous cat and mouse game as this mystery man starts to invade her privacy at work, on her computer and, again, at her home. The weird thing, and something that is totally up Paul Verhoeven’s alley, is that Michèle appears to get some satisfaction out of it.
For Paul Verhoeven, Elle is a film that sits in a totally tested realm for the filmmaker. He has certain modes, one being the gratuitously violent action field that spawned Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, the other being his super sexual and dark thrillers that add an explicit sexuality, like Basic Instinct, Showgirls and his last film Black Book and Elle fits right into that, complete with scenes of disturbing violence. Elle, like Black Book, holds up well with its mystery and adds in some incredibly dark humor but it’s the driven performance of Huppert that makes the film really remarkable.
As much as I enjoyed Elle, there are some detractors to the film that I felt took me out of it a bit. Michèle’s actions, at times, feel completely unreal and placed to further the mystery but this can be ignored more than a subplot that happens with her son. The film takes far too long focusing on something that feels like a bit of a quick throwaway gag about the birth of Michèle’s grandchild, one that is obviously not related to her. This whole thing feels like it gets beaten like a dead horse and began to be tedious in my mind. Otherwise, this film is a sexy thriller amid a series of complex relationships, awkward encounters and a rising suspicion that may be solved a little too quickly for some audience members. I’m purely satisfied on the fact that after ten years, one of the filmmakers at the beginning of my real cinematic experiences is back. 3.5/5