Leave it to the French. I doubt anyone will call Elle a feminist film, though it features the great Isabelle Huppert as a woman seeking revenge after she is raped in her home. The plot twists are as lurid as what we’d expect from director Paul Verhoeven, whose previous films include Basic Instinct and Show Girls. His tawdry male attention competes with Huppert’s dominating performance, and the result is a complicated tug-of-war between their two energies.
Huppert’s character Michele is a founder (with another female partner) at a video-game company. Every day of her work is a negotiation between her and the cabal of twenty-something men who design the games. She’s unflinching; she encourages the games to be more sexually violent. Michele is also having an affair with her partner’s husband. She lusts after her cute neighbor, spying on him from her window. It feels like Verhoeven and screenwriter David Brike tried to find every way to make Michele an atypical assault victim. And because she just can’t catch a break, her father is also a legendary killer.
You might call Elle a black comedy. It’s too overwrought not to. Huppert has a scalding wit and no hesitation saying what she wants. When her son’s child is born, she deflates the moment by calling for a DNA test; the baby’s skin looks two shades darker than his, she tells him. You might also read Elle as a twisted male rape fantasy—or even a female fantasy. Is Michele seeking revenge for her assault, or does she want a different kind of gratification? Like everything else in her life, Michele takes control of her rape and proceeds to avenge it by her own doing. And Huppert makes the most sensational scenes feel purposeful. She’s a tough cookie, and her movie-star looks and guttural looks contribute to the movie’s deviant allure. Like Michele, she’s in control here, giving the movie a core of strength and resilience impossible to resist.