Paul Verhoeven proves that he's still one of cinema's canniest artists with his latest effort Elle. Verhoeven directed Robocop and Starship Troopers; two films that, under the guise of a pulpy action adventure, laid bare the curdled power politics that fuels the engine of the American experiment. Elle makes no such scathing indictments, though it courses with a similarly blackly funny misanthropic energy. But, thankfully, Verhoeven still has a propensity to unsettle and mess around with the form, and thus, Elle: a horror/comedy picture inside a slice-of-life drama.
Huppert's steely, confident performance as Michele is perhaps the reason to see this. Her understandable trauma later serves to quench an unconventional carnal thirst, and the result is mesmerising in its amorality. It could've been a disaster in another actor's hands, but Huppert is an expert performer who is committed to unvarnished psychological nuance. And with her acidic line readings and spasms of disgust that lines her face at just the right moments, Huppert wholly embodies a haughty alpha dog surrounded by weak fools and eccentrics.
To its credit, Elle opts not to frame Michele as a sympathetic victim but rather one in a cast of characters who behave in strange and petty ways to one another – a human being, in other words. Her rapes that pepper the film, though shocking and disgusting, are also signifiers of a flux in a power dynamic with a key character, and so are decidedly not an affirmation of her victimhood. There are no concrete conclusions reached with respect to the nature of sexual assault and this is for the best. After all, it's of course, an intensely personal thing to be violated, and befitting that, Elle is an intensely personal story. It's a beautiful and bruised one, too.