“Elle” opens with the muffled sounds of a woman being sexually assaulted by a masked attacker. The only witness is a gray cat, purring as the victim screams. The assault takes place off camera, but the aftermath is chilling, as the woman sweeps up shattered glass, wipes blood from her thigh, throws her soiled dress in the trash, soaks in a bubble bath and orders sushi. It’s business as usual for Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), but not so much for the rest of us. Before the credits roll, director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) takes us on one rough ride through the dark side of human nature, exploring the intense emotions of shame, lust and rage.
As he documents Michèle’s life, Verhoeven adeptly turns the tables on classic portrayals of victimization and revenge. “Elle” is a combination of black comedy and psycho-sexual revenge thriller, as Michèle tries to figure out who was behind the mask.
Michèle is the cultured and well-off CEO of a company that profits from misogynistic video games. Divorced with an adult son, Michèle lives alone in a beautiful Paris abode, protected by a cast iron gate. This rape isn’t the first time Michèle has had to soldier forth. That’s why she reacts so unpredictably afterward. There are no frantic calls to police (a childhood trauma turned her off to cops). She sheds no tears. Later, at a restaurant with friends, she casually tells them: “I suppose I was raped. What are the dinner specials?”
“Elle” is a complicated movie that gives audiences plenty to grumble about: how his film perpetuates rape culture, beats up on its leading lady and surrounds Michèle with depraved men.
She’s involved with a married man, an affair she tries to end. Her slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) calls her the c-word. Her male employees are either in a state of infatuation or loathing. And there’s more than one encounter with the rapist, who continues to attack Michèle emotionally. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is a bit of a dolt. Thick sexual tension brews with the handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte). On top of it all, Michèle’s incarcerated father has deeply scarred her.
Verhoeven, who also directed “Showgirls,” “Total Recall” and “Robocop,” builds quite a rogue’s gallery. When he brings them all together for a Christmas dinner party at Michèle’s home, it makes for one glorious gathering. The dysfunction is on overdrive and the movie feels like a comedy of manners. But when Michèle plays footsie under the table with the hot neighbor and satisfies herself watching him through binoculars — as he sets up a nativity scene — you know you were never in Kansas.
As the end draws near, Verhoeven puts Michèle’s masochistic ways front and center. There are some twists and revelations that don’t exactly ring true. It’s refreshing to have a full-blown female antihero to root for. It’s just troubling that the filmmaker uses the rape to put the movie in motion. After that harrowing opening, you definitely think Michèle is a victim in denial. But the way she goes about her life and Huppert’s ability to sell the aloofness make you think otherwise. Maybe it was a rape fantasy? Given the other sexual actions Michèle takes in the film, it’s possible that maybe she liked it. That’s what Verhoeven hints at and that’s uncomfortable. But this is a director who has never been afraid to stir the pot in exploring female sexual empowerment (or is it depravity?).
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Jonas Bloquet, Charles Berling.
Director: Paul Verhoeven.
Screenwriter: David Birke. Based on the novel by Phillippe Djian.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 130 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, sexual assault, nudity, grisly images. In Miami-Dade only: Tower Theater.