To say that Isabelle Huppert is sweeping up accolades for her performance in “Elle,” Paul Verhoeven’s gonzo feminist romantic psycho thriller, would be something of an understatement. This is one of those moments when an actress isn’t just honored but anointed — lionized for her bravura and daring. And that’s a good thing, since “Elle” is an audacious, paradigm-smashing movie, one that deserves to be seen. Which isn’t to say that it’s a masterpiece. The film has been showered with praise on two continents, and almost every critic I know adores it (including my esteemed friend and colleague Peter Debruge, who chose it as one of his 10 Best Films of 2016). But I’ve seen the film twice, and with all due respect to my fellow critics, I have to say that I can scarcely fathom the intense admiration for “Elle,” because I think the movie is nuts.
My puzzlement over the rapture it has inspired begins with a question that’s been percolating around in my brain ever since “Elle” was released on Nov. 11: Where’s the outrage? Where’s the fury, the passion, the wild range of reaction, the debate, the dissension, the contention, the fulminating counterattack? These days, it takes a lot to make a movie controversial; controversy now tends to swirl around behavior that’s happening off-camera. Yet we live in an age of heightened feminist consciousness, and in that context there’s no denying that “Elle” would seem to have the makings of a supremely controversial hot-button event, since it’s a movie about…well, look, I can’t discuss what it’s about without revealing major plot twists, so be warned. From here on, this column will not be a spoiler-free zone.
“Elle” appears to be a drama about a great many things: love, isolation, unruly desire, video games, psychotic murder, the urge to watch. (The urge to watch what? All of the above.) At heart, though, the movie is about the following thing: a self-possessed but rather sneaky Parisian businesswoman, played by Huppert, who is raped several times in her home by a masked assailant, and who winds up having a forbidden affair with him. At first, she has no idea that the attacker and the handsome neighbor she’s attracted to are one and the same man. Then she finds out — and it doesn’t cool her ardor. It only inflames it. This is Verhoeven’s sadomasochistic caveman version of sex-positive feminism.
If the scenario sounds at all dicey, like something that might raise eyebrows, hackles, or overheated editorials — well, on paper, it certainly does. But there’s a reason why “Elle” has produced almost none of that. The film is weirdly, almost fetishistically detached from the emotions of its own scenario. It turns out that the defining quality of “Elle” isn’t its provocative trashing of erotic correctness. Rather, it’s the way that the movie unfolds in a post-psychological, post-traumatic, post-camp, art-film-meets-graphic-novel landscape where it’s hard to be outraged by (or feel fully connected to) anything that’s going on, since the characters, especially Huppert’s, act like the life they’re living is a movie they’re watching.
From its blasphemous kickoff, the film tips you to see that the basic dramatic building blocks of human action and motivation are going to be out the window. The screen is black, and we hear what sounds like a woman in the throes of lovemaking — but then the image comes on, and we see that Huppert’s character is, in fact, being assaulted by what looks like a feral masked ninja. That fake-out isn’t an accident; it’s Verhoeven’s naughty way of implying, off the bat, that his portrayal of rape is going to cut against the moral grain.
Then the truly unsettling thing happens: After the attack, Huppert’s Michèlle calmly cleans up the house, going about her business. The fact that she decides not to report the rape to the police is explained a little later on. It turns out that her father is a notorious incarcerated killer, and that the mass slaughter he committed 40 years before, murdering many of the residents of their neighborhood in a single afternoon, has tainted Michèlle, who was a child at the time. (She didn’t kill anyone, but he forced the girl to be a witness.) She wants nothing to do with the cops — and even if she didn’t have that background, we all know that a great many sexual assaults go unreported, so this behavior needs no excuse.
But what about her manner? After the rape, it’s so cool, blasé, and officious, so teasingly whatever, that the question that pops into your mind — “Why isn’t she reacting to this horrific event in any way?” — instantly becomes part of Verhoeven’s smirky postmodern game plan. The film seems to be saying: “You want a reaction? How 20th century!” Michèlle, from the start, is the mistress of her domain. Her empowerment is rooted in her ability to play her trauma like a video game.
She does, in fact, own a company that makes violent video games (the one they’re currently working on, which hinges on imagery of a woman being violated by a giant tentacle, isn’t extreme enough for her), and that’s one more tipoff that Michèlle isn’t as placid as she looks. Trying to place some sort of order on the haphazardness of “Elle,” critics have described it as 1) a revenge drama or 2) a movie in which Michèlle attempts to track down her assailant. There’s a bit of the latter, but in essence “Elle” is neither of those things. (Once the assailant is unmasked, any tracking down is done.) It’s more like a lurid soap opera with crucial scenes missing.
The secret weapon of its appeal is Michèlle’s absolute assertion of control over her own pain and desire. That’s the film’s one constant, and — along with the Huppert mystique, a fusion of desolation and pride — the only thing, really, that holds it together. Michèlle is like a middle-aged bourgeois erotic superhero. Pleasurewoman! She has sexual encounters with a variety of men, even when they’re not good for her (that’s one of her powers), and she’s playing out something with her rapist/lover. But what? Why does this woman stay with a sexually violent lunatic?
I love walk-on-the-wild-side dramas, but “Elle” doesn’t parse as narrative or psychology, and that, ironically, has encouraged some to embrace it as a “deconstructed” fantasia of erotic adventure. The film’s overheated-yet-blank, common-sense-be-damned quality has been greeted as if Verhoeven had made a sophisticated decision to put quote marks around everything he shows you. At times, “Elle” suggests an Almodóvar movie made with the Verhoeven gaze. Put another way, it’s “Showgirls” with subtitles.
“Showgirls,” of course, is Verhoeven’s most scandalous film (it’s not just the sex — there’s no scandal quite like legendary failure), but that movie is now entering its third stage of existence. First, it was a commercial bomb and critical disgrace. Then it was rediscovered as a delirious cult film — an overheated jiggle-fest to giggle through. But the 21 years since its release have been kind to “Showgirls,” because even though it’s still “All About Eve” in G-strings and eye glitter, the way Elizabeth Berkley’s furious and damaged heroine stalks like an angry showhorse through a landscape of predatory harassment gives it an unexpected contemporary charge. It’s high-voltage camp not just because it’s funny but because it plays. The original slams of it were rooted, to a degree, in rejecting the very notion that a feminist fairy tale could have such a sordid, sleazy milieu. But let’s be honest: That rejection itself now seems a tad sexist. “Showgirls” may be naked cat-fight trash, but it’s trash that has the courage of its snarling vulgarity.
Is “Elle” a better film? It has a lot of the same dynamics, and “Showgirls,” frankly, is a movie that makes a lot more sense. What “Elle” really has, at least on the surface, is a classier pedigree. Huppert’s performance lends a luminous touch of ambiguity to each of Michèlle’s actions, even when what the character is doing defies any hint of motivation. Then again, there’s no arguing with a movie like “Elle,” because it’s already a cult film too. Its casual contempt for emotional logic has become part of what’s hip about it. You don’t just watch it — you project yourself into its video-game version of life. “Elle” represents a turn of the corner: the elevation of kitsch into a transcendent art-house value.