A powerful video game company CEO is raped by a masked man, then does everything she can to identify the rapist—except call the police. In Paul Verhoeven's Elle, the elaborate plot underlying this attention-grabbing premise is revealed step by step, focusing on Michèle's (Isabelle Huppert) increasingly drastic deviations from the professional, social, and domestic routines in which she wields power over men, as the memory of the rape slowly consumes her.
Billed in the U.S. as an "erotic thriller," Elle changes genre by the scene: the deadpan family comedy of Michèle's ill-fated Christmas party morphs into a slasher movie when the rapist returns to stalk her through her apartment. The film then becomes a corporate thriller when Michèle begins to suspect, and plot against, a disgruntled employee. But Elle's sharpest twists and turns are reflexive. As a suspense film, it's as much about who Michèle is and how she relates to people as it is about the identity of her stalker.
The humanity of Huppert's performance tempers the film's excesses. She has made a career out of playing women who effortlessly embody irreconcilable qualities: domineering and vulnerable (The Piano Teacher) or monstrous and innocent (Violette). She does it again here, taking a character whose motivations are sometimes inscrutable, other times overly determined by her dark family history, and turning her into a magnetic, if not quite believable, screen presence.
As for Elle's equally subversive director, U.S. audiences might expect something with more machine guns, or at least more T&A, from the man behind Total Recall and Basic Instinct. But the work Verhoeven produces on the other side of the Atlantic, such as The Fourth Man and Black Book, tends to be rooted more in history and psychology than Hollywood genres. After a string of expensive failures beginning with Showgirls, Verhoeven is unlikely to return to American film anytime soon. But regardless of whether he's working in Europe or Hollywood, his signature talent (and liability) is a precise sense of where the boundary of good taste lies along with an eagerness to cross it.
Though Elle is his first French film, Verhoeven displays evident comfort with the context of his source material, Philippe Djian's yet-to-be-translated novel, Oh.... Indeed, Elle bears a surface resemblance to recent French thrillers like Demonlover and Love Crime, which also revel in the eroticized machinations of powerful female executives (while borrowing a page or two from Arnaud Desplechin's witty family dramedies).
But a final few outlandish twists distance Elle from the softcore thrills of corporate backstabbing or rape-revenge fantasies, forcing us to question everything we took for granted about the relationship between victim and victimizer without offering any easy moral critique. Careening from light comedy to horror and back again, it's an unusually complete cinematic experience for viewers with the fortitude to handle it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Payback Time."