Over a five-decade career, Paul Verhoeven has received the Razzie for Worst Film of the Decade (Showgirls, 1995) as well as the Golden Calf for Best Dutch Film of the Century for Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1973), so it’s little surprise that the polarising question of whether his work is trash, genius, or both, endures. For those sympathetic to Pauline Kael, though, “Movies – a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world – fit the way we feel”1, and in these post-truthy times where reality and satire seem mashed irretrievably, Verhoeven’s brand of brash cynicism and excess feels alarmingly relevant, even if it’s not always pleasant to sit through. Adam Nayman’s book Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck (2014) headed up the latest call for critical re-evaluations of Verhoeven’s work, before Elle – his first feature in a decade – debuted to a rapturous reception at Cannes in 2016, and leads the Verhoenaissance currently unfolding.
For apologists, Verhoeven is a unique, ruthless voice. He emerged from a childhood raised in Nazi-occupied Holland, which imprinted a fascination with forms of power and fascism that he has spent a career unspooling. Across the 1970s, his Dutch-language films pushed his abiding twin themes – sex and violence – in order to expose the hypocrisies of militarism, masculinity and religious frenzy. Forsaking the conservative Dutch film industry for the liberties of Hollywood, Verhoeven’s U.S. studio films used the apparent gutter genres of sci-fi and erotic thriller to continue this exploration, revelling in and simultaneously ripping to shreds American culture in Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Starship Troopers (1997), and Showgirls.
Elle was intended to be another American film, but Verhoeven was unable to find a production company or lead actress willing to take on the project, and returned to Europe. In France, Isabelle Huppert had expressed enthusiasm for the adaptation of Phillipe Dijan’s novel Oh… (2012) before Verhoeven was attached. In interviews, his respect for and delight in freely giving the role over to Huppert’s interpretation, letting her carry and extend scenes beyond David Birke’s script, is palpable: “I have the feeling that this movie should not have been made at all if Isabelle Huppert didn’t exist.”2 Huppert carries the film, appearing in every scene, but also co-authors it, loading it with her past screen lives, so that Michèle’s traumas feel ghosted by those audiences have witnessed Huppert live through – in particular the sadomasochistic shadows of La pianiste (The Pianist, Michael Haneke, 2001) and White Material (Claire Denis, 2009). Elle becomes a glorious advertisement for the appreciation of actors as potentially work-defining collaborators.
Elle’s “post-feminist”3 heroine Michèle Leblanc can, like Verhoeven, begin to be understood as a product of childhood atrocities and patriarchy. The daughter of a serial killer and CEO of a violent video-game company, Michèle is a successful, independent Parisian woman who has spent her life stoically refusing victimhood. After she is brutally raped in the opening scene by a masked intruder in her own home, she matter-of-factly persists with this approach – she sweeps up her broken wine glasses, takes a bath, orders sushi. “I suppose I was raped,” she tells friends at dinner while a champagne bottle waits to be popped, before brushing aside the admission, “Shall we order?”
And yet it clearly does matter. This is shown through the flashbacks, the fissures of vulnerability that Huppert reveals behind Michèle’s haughty front, as well as the mood of sinister, lurking chaos that is crafted through Stéphane Fontaine’s fluid cinematography, shot handheld on two HD cameras at all times, building an eerie voyeurism. Michèle changes the locks of the giant house in which she lives alone, goes shopping for a can of pepper spray and a hatchet.
Despite its interior-heavy realist veneer, Elle remains a distinctly Verhoeven work, exploiting genre and lapsing into moments of cartoonish grotesqueness: her attacker continues to harass, sending obscene messages and later breaking into her home, leaving a trail of cum on her bed sheets, which she fingers like blood at a crime scene, disturbingly still wet. Michèle resolves to identify and challenge her assailant, and Elle swerves to take on the contours of a whodunit. After a point, though, the mystery feels moot, superseded by the sickening observation that every man in Michèle’s life exists on a spectrum of the pathetic, from bumbling through to mass-murderous, and in their weakest moments, each resorts to violence. Re-treading classic Verhoeven territory, the film asks where the line between man and monster lies.
Embroiled in such human muck, the greatest charm of Verhoeven’s “tawdry corrupt art” lies in its comic picking at the seams of bourgeois Paris, situating the violence Michele suffers within a social milieu. Brimming with razor-sharp dialogue, mostly delivered by Huppert with malicious glee, Elle busies itself with mocking middle-class problems such as parking, adultery, and ungracefully ageing parents. Verhoeven has cited The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972) as a key influence, and Elle similarly capitalises on the dramatic possibilities of the dinner-party scene. Featuring a toothpick hidden inside an entrée and a foot rubbing against a neighbour’s crotch beneath the table, this is Verhoeven at his vulgar best, relishing the lived contradictions of his amoral ensemble, surrounded by genteel twinkling Christmas lights.
In this way, Elle shadowboxes with some very real issues of the world and re-packages them as genre-busting entertainment. Its relentless manoeuvring resists easy categorisation. Locked to the perspective of Huppert’s confounding, indelible heroine, Elle takes on the subject of rape and its fallout, as well as the motivations behind perverse sexual desire, coolly examining without affirming any one standpoint or response or explanation. Despite the suggestion of its title, Elle makes no claims to speak for all women.
Elle (2016 France 130 minutes)
Dir: Paul Verhoeven Scr: David Birke, adapted into French by Harold Manning, based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Dijan (2012) Phot: Stéphane Fontaine Ed: Job ter Burg Costume Des: Nathalie Raoul
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
- Pauline Kael in “Trash, Art and Movies”, Harper’s Magazine, February 1969, pp.65-68, 78-83. http://harpers.org/archive/1969/02/trash-art-and-the-movies ↩
- Verhoeven quoted in “Paul Verhoeven on Elle, Satirizing Trump, and Why He Depicts So Much Violence Against Women”, Slate, 23 November 2016. ↩
- Quoted by Huppert during a post-screening Q&A at the 2016 New York Film Festival. ↩