I remember seeing the front cover of a UK movie magazine about five years ago and being slightly amused by the strapline, which went something like ‘RoboCop! Total Recall! Starship Troopers! CLASSIC SCI-FI SPECIAL!’ (needless to say, all of those movies were supposedly being remade at the time, though one of them seems not to have made it out of development hell). Now, whether or not you consider all of them to be CLASSIC SCI-FI is really up to you (personally, I’d say that the original RoboCop is a genuinely great film, Starship Troopers a fascinating and extremely accomplished one, and Total Recall just another Hollywood mangling of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers) but what is really indisputable is that the magazine could definitely have billed itself as a PAUL VERHOEVEN SPECIAL with no grounds for argument whatsoever. And there certainly is something special about Verhoeven, though whether in a wholly positive way or not is something many people might debate.
Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood in his 40s and very nearly got typed as a science fiction movie director – he was initially in the frame to direct Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then called, but lost any chance at the gig when George Lucas actually sat down and watched one of his Dutch movies – he was concerned, Verhoeven later recalled somewhat drily, that ‘the Jedi would immediately start ****ing’. Lucas’ suspicion that Verhoeven’s muse was wont to lead him into non-family-friendly territory was arguably confirmed when the director later oversaw the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the just plain notorious Showgirls.
Things have been quiet on the Verhoeven front for a while now – no American movies since Hollow Man in 2000, a typically restrained take on the Invisible Man story (NB: irony is present), and no Dutch movies, either, since the period thriller Black Book in 2006. At the age of 78, you might have assumed he had taken to the role of Grand Old Man of Dutch Cinema and was enjoying a well-earned retirement, but you would be wrong. He has a new movie out, Elle, and I think it is fair it say it is not quite like anything he has ever done before.
Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing and arguably very courageous performance as Michele, a businesswoman in her middle years who runs a production company making suspiciously Warcraft-esque video games. Verhoeven puts the audience on notice that they are not in for a comfortable ride by opening the movie literally seconds after Michele is the victim of a violent sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. Neither director nor actress shy away from the sheer awfulness of this, but the first sign that this is not a conventional approach to this topic comes when she simply tidies up the wreckage and gets back to her normal routine, not bothering to even tell her friends, let alone call the police. The incident seems to have left no impression on her at all: when the lead designer at her company unveils a unpleasant piece of animation which appears violently misogynistic, Michele’s response is to complain that it just isn’t visceral enough for their target audience.
The fact of the rape looms over what otherwise would mostly seem to be a smart and sardonic comedy-drama about life in modern Paris, as Michele contends with her ex-husband taking up with a much younger new partner, her somewhat embarrassingly oversexed mother, and her useless great lump of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his psychotic girlfriend. Everyone is very sophisticated and French – Michele herself is discreetly sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also seems to be rather taken with her hunky married neighbour (Laurent Lafitte). C’est la vie, as I believe they sometimes say in the Netherlands.
However, the film frequently and unsettlingly shifts gears and transforms itself into a rather disturbing thriller: it soon becomes apparent that Michele’s attacker is not yet finished with her, as anonymous texts reveal he is still taking an interest in her life. Nor is she quite as indifferent as first appeared to be the case, judging from her recent purchases of pepper spray and an axe…
Your first thought might be that Paul Verhoeven has chosen to make a film in French (his first) because France is relatively close to home for him and thus a bit less of a gruelling commute than flying off to Los Angeles or New York City. This is not the case, apparently, because Verhoeven did want to make Elle in America, as an English-language movie. The movie obviously stands or falls by the central performance, and on the director’s wish-list were names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. Apparently all of them refused to participate; neither was an American studio willing to finance the film.
You may perhaps have gleaned some inkling of just why this film had the great powers of Anglophone cinema closing their curtains and pretending to be out when Verhoeven turned up on their doorsteps with the script – the tonal shifts alone mark Elle as an unconventionally audacious movie – but, I promise you, this is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Verhoeven gleefully takes a wrecking ball to all manner of social and sexual taboos in the course of the movie. Describing Elle as hugely provocative is an understatement.
And yet he manages to get away with it, making a film which is as manifestly intelligent and deftly controlled as the best of his work. How does Verhoeven work the trick? Well, the script is viciously clever, for one thing – from the start, it is clear that Michele is not quite wired up the same way as other people, and there is a monstrous never-to-be-discussed piece of family history that has left the deepest of scars on her. On the other hand, you are distracted from wondering exactly how messed up she really is by the fact that she is always a fascinating and amusing character, if not always a completely sympathetic one. Huppert’s performance is really breathtaking; I rather suspect the fact that she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar may come to be viewed as a historic injustice. The way the movie deals en passant with issues such as the state of modern manhood, misogynist culture, and the role of religion in the world also means you are never short of food for thought.
The sophistication, dark humour, playfulness, and sheer transgressiveness of Elle has led some to suggest that there is something rather Hitchcockian about it, and I can see where they’re coming from – even though this is rather more extreme than anything Hitchcock ever made. But it also has that slight sense of misogynistic suspicion about it, the distinct feeling that women are somehow implicitly enigmatic, unpredictable creatures. That the movie also manages to be inarguably feminist, with the only characters possessing any real agency being women, is just another of its baffling achievements.
There are many things about Elle which are as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a cinema for a very long time, but I would still hesitate to recommend this film unreservedly to anyone I didn’t know well: it is just so extreme and challenging in so many different ways. One thing which I am certain of is that this doesn’t feel like the work of a man pushing 80 years old: it has the energy and appetite for mischief, the desire to challenge and cause trouble you would normally associate with a much younger artists. It almost goes without saying – but there’s an abundance of life in the old dog yet.