You’ve never seen a rape-revenge fantasy quite like “Elle,” not least because the rape, revenge and fantasy components of that subgenre have never been quite so fascinatingly disarranged. Knowingly incendiary but remarkably cool-headed, and built around yet another of Isabelle Huppert’s staggering psychological dissections, Paul Verhoeven’s long-awaited return to notional genre filmmaking pulls off a breathtaking bait-and-switch: Audiences arriving for a lurid slab of arthouse exploitation will be taken off-guard by the complex, compassionate, often corrosively funny examination of unconventional desires that awaits them. Sony Pictures Classics boldly scooped the U.S. rights for this many-layered provocation, the commercial returns of which may be enhanced by a flame-war of heated journalistic thinkpieces left in its wake. Whatever the upshot of those, the film itself — perhaps the greatest of Verhoeven’s storied career — is bracingly resistant to essentialist conclusions.
“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,” Michèle (Huppert) spits at her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) midway through “Elle” — a jolting observation that can be applied to so many characters’ motivations in this film’s tangled, needling network of improper human behavior that it makes one slightly dizzy to contemplate them all. It’s just one of many killer lines in American scripter David Birke’s highly sophisticated screenplay, adapted from French-Armenian writer Philippe Djian’s award-winning 2012 novel “Oh…” with an initial intent to relocate the action to the U.S. Per press notes, however, the project reverted to the novel’s Parisian setting when, in Verhoeven’s own impudent words, he concluded that “no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie.”
Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to imagine any other actress in what could just about have been a bespoke Huppert vehicle, one that appears to tacitly reference a number of her previous character studies in candid feminine sexuality — perhaps most expressly, in one unvarnished masturbation scene, her celebrated turn in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.” Admissions of “amorality” may be misread by those seeking short cuts to controversy around the film, but it’s precisely the word for what director, writer and star are collaboratively pursuing here: In mapping one woman’s eccentric, sometimes inscrutable response to sexual assault, “Elle” has little interest in articulating either her experience or the consequences thereof in moral terms. Yet it hangs on her every emotional fluctuation, each one etched on Huppert’s face with riveting specificity as Michèle vacillates between the roles of victim and masochist — a distinction rendered dangerously fine in script and performance alike.
Indeed, the line is blurred at the very outset of the film, as Verhoeven opens on a black screen soundtracked by the abrasive grunts and gasps of rough intercourse — though whether it’s consensual or not is impossible to tell in this directorially imposed darkness. Verhoeven delays the information, first taking in the bland gaze of Michèle’s enormous housecat Marty, before revealing our protagonist mid-rape, pinned to the floor by a balaclava-clad attacker.
It’s an introduction so shockingly abrupt and curtly shot — undercutting our genre expectations of a more predatory build-up —that some viewers might briefly wonder if the act has been imagined (or even fetishistically staged) by Michèle. Certainly, her immediate, impassive reaction to her own rape doesn’t square with our expectations, as she locks the door after her escaped attacker, sweeps up the broken crockery and gets on with her day. As the film progresses, the attack is replayed in mental flashback, with the outcome eventually diverging from what occurred. Our sense of whether Michèle is traumatized or aroused — or some combination of the two — by these constant recollections remains in flux throughout.
In one of the film’s least subtle ironies, unattached divorcee Michèle is the successful CEO of a video-game label specializing in violently eroticized medieval fantasy: “The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid!” she chides one of her digital artists, days after her ordeal. She has her own complicated, deeply embedded reasons for refusing to notify the police of the incident — which Birke’s script, laced as it is with intricate psychological byways, takes its time to explore. Abetted by carefully planted narrative distractions and the lush, insidiously swelling strings of Anne Dudley’s Herrmann-esque score, her reticence enables what appears to be a simple whodunnit, as a host of men who could feasibly be the rapist are introduced.
That entire mystery, however, turns out to be something of a red herring in itself, as the man is unmasked more swiftly (and perhaps less surprisingly) than expected — upon which “Elle” daringly careens into a study of singular perversion that no critic worth their salt should discuss further. Suffice it to say that the pursuit of a male identity proves trivial beside the film’s more profound investigation of a female one: It’s Michèle’s mass of conflicting intellectual, emotional and sexual impulses on which Verhoeven and Birke are entirely fixated, as she somehow comes to assume active possession of her victimhood. A heady array of subplots — Michèle’s ongoing affair with a friend’s husband, not to mention the busy romantic imbroglios of her mother, ex-husband and dimwitted adult son — might have overwhelmed her already fraught narrative, yet artfully feed into her own quest for personal and carnal satisfaction.
This kind of high-wire material is dependent as much on the resourcefulness of the performer as it is on the sensitivity of the director. Having left the lacquered vulgarity of “Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct” far behind, Verhoeven is on maturely composed, restrained form, marshaling all the film’s cinematic elements — notably the muted, charcoal-streaked lensing of regular Jacques Audiard collaborator Stéphane Fontaine — in service of Huppert’s enthralling characterization. As is her custom, the actress nails one peppery, passive-aggressive line reading after another, but it’s the magnified physicality of her work that mesmerizes most. Every minute curl of the lip or flick of a fingernail is loaded with implication — whether of desire, devastation or distaste, conscious or subconscious.
Huppert, whose bid for “greatest living actor” status grows more persuasive with each film, has already notched up one marvelous performance this year in Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come” — a gentler, more empathetic portrait of female sexual uncertainty in middle age that arguably stands, and not just by virtue of casting and timing, as a curiously resonant companion piece to “Elle.” Here, however, the thesp makes wholly credible a character whose actions frequently challenge belief. “Who could imagine such a thing?” Michèle plaintively asks toward the end, after telling a still-selective version of her strange, secret story. Who indeed? Isabelle Huppert, for one.