When you think of movies that roar out of the starting gate with a brutal act of sexual violence, you don’t predict the victim will casually sweep up the debris from the attack, take a relaxing bubble bath and mention it in passing to her swank dinner companions before ordering.
Then again, when you think of films made by provocateur Paul Verhoeven, who directed “Robocop” and “Total Recall,” you don’t expect a standard-issue woman-in-peril potboiler, either. His latest, “Elle,” is as carnally explicit, blood-soaked, politically incorrect and creatively lavish as his earlier works. The difference is that this amoral thrill ride is, above all, a woman’s picture.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Michele, the CEO of a French video game company. She’s being brutally raped at her luxurious home by a masked prowler the moment the movie begins. She doesn’t react in the way we expect. Much like her cat, which watches the attack with coldly glittering eyes, Michele handles her attack with unnerving indifference. And why not? She’s familiar with depravity.
The disturbing new video game her firm is developing resembles Asian tentacle smut, which she critiques with comments like, “The orgasmic seizures must be more exaggerated” and “When a player kills, he has to feel blood on his hands.” And she suffered unspeakable childhood abuse from her father, who has spent the past 40 years in prison for his crimes.
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Michele is a fluid, complex character. The film goes deep into her longings and desires, twisted by trauma and having to operate inside the social constraints of being a woman. She’s a rare mixed breed, a sympathetic, amoral femme fatale.
Michele’s world is developed through multiple subplots. We meet her egocentric mother preparing to wed a younger male escort, her dimwitted son who thinks that his slutty girlfriend is carrying his baby, and work colleagues and neighbors who admire or resent her suave self-control. She works hidden sabotage against her ex-husband’s current romance while conducting affairs at the expense of her longtime friends. The film is bitterly funny in some of these matters.
The movie follows her personal and professional lives in the aftermath of her rape. Michele conceals the facts from the police, buying self-defense weapons and investigating possible suspects working at her company. Will murder(s) be committed?
“Elle” is a mysterious puzzle, not mainly about whodunit plot points, but the far more titillating question of who people truly are and what they’re capable of.
Rated R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity and language. In subtitled French. 2:10. Kentucky.