Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2016)

16. Elle

In-between 2000 and 2016, Paul Verhoeven only made two movies. Considering he was making a film about every other year for the first three decades of his career, that's a major slow down. Yes, “Black Book” was a hit in Holland and well reviewed internationally but, to many eyes, Paul Verhoeven was semi-retired. Until last year. With the release of “Elle,” Verhoeven would court conversation and controversy in a way that he hadn't in years. The film would generate discussion all over the world. Isabelle Huppert's lead performance would win multiple awards and universal acclaim. Unsurprisingly, “Elle” has been hailed as Verhoeven's comeback vehicle.

Michele, a successful video game producer and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, is raped in her own home by a masked intruder. Michele, at first, seems unchanged by the assault. She is as ruthless as ever at work and in her personal life. She bosses around her lover, belittles her employees, argues with her son, and begins some intense flirting with her next door neighbor. However, her attacker is not done. He leaves vulgar text messages and even enters her house when she's not home. After a second assault, Michele discovers the man's true identity. And then things get really complicated.

“Elle” was going to generate controversy, regardless. The cultural environment of 2017 is more sensitive to the subject of sexual assault than ever before. With Verhoeven directing, a filmmaker with a not always tasteful attitude towards sexual violence, “Elle” became especially contentious. Yet “Elle” grants a rape victim the greatest gratitude: Complexity. Too often in film and television, people who have been assaulted are depicted as weeping victims. Not too mention all the media that uses a woman's rape strictly to motivate a man's story. “Elle” is strictly Michele's story. Moreover, her reaction to being raped is complicated. She goes about her life, yet hides psychic scars. The assault might even awaken something in her. “Elle” is a multi-faceted portrayal of someone living through something horrible. And it deserves major kudos for that.

Some of that complexity is thanks to the director. Michelle is, in many ways, the quintessential Verhoven-ian woman. She's ruthless in her professional life, hard in her romantic and family life, and absolutely determined to succeed. However, I have no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is primarily responsible for making the character come alive so beautifully. Huppert's exterior is chilly. The only vulnerability she shows is a dark sense of humor, an occasional sarcastic aside to her cat. Even after wrecking her car, Michelle remains stoic. On the page, Michelle is almost a mystery. Huppert turns her into a complex, fully formed character. With her body language, a vocal intonation, a glance or a gesture, she hints at the layers within. No wonder some call Huppert the greatest actress alive.

“Elle” was based on a novel by Philippe Dijian. Despite this, the director makes the material his own. In many ways, “Elle” continues the themes Verhoeven has been developing since at least “Basic Instinct.” This is another story about an uncompromising woman and the clueless men in her life. Michelle's son, Vincent, is pushed around by his pregnant girlfriend. He quits his fast food job, despite needing the money. When the baby comes out black, Vincent still assumes the child is his. Michelle's ex-husband, an unsuccessful novelist, is in the grips of a pathetic mid-life crisis, dating a younger woman and desperately trying to stay relevant. Michelle's lover is a complete buffoon, a constantly horny dweeb. Even the rapist is clueless. After being fatally wounded, he asks Michelle “why.” As if she needs another reason to hate him. The film's heroine may be uncompromising, even cold, but the film's men are all totally clueless assholes.

“Elle” doesn't feature the graphic violence of Verhoeven's Hollywood movies. Attitude-wise, it is just as brutal. The film begins with Michelle's assault. The very first scene shows her struggling under her attacker, in an isolated wide shot. Which then cuts to her cat, watching dispassionately and uninterested. This characterizes the world of “Elle.” The later rapes occur just as suddenly, just as unforgiving in their violence. At times, it feels like the universe is conspiring against the protagonist. Because of her infamy as the daughter of a murderer, random people on the street toss food at her. A deer leaping into the road forces Michelle to swerve into a tree, another example of things going badly for her. But Michelle isn't a victim. Only hours after the first assault, she goes to work and oversees a video game cut scene featuring a rather literal mind rape. The world is cruel. She must be cruel to survive it. 

“Elle's” brutality is also present in the way it depicts Michelle's mental state. Outwardly, she shows little sign of trouble. Inside is another matter. During the middle of the day, we are treated to an extended flashback of the opening rape. This is a good portrayal of how random events can trigger traumatic memories. Further on, Michelle has a daydream about the assault going differently. She imagines a scenario where she successfully turned the tables on her attacker. This is also an accurate depiction of the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. That the film cuts between the protagonist's memories and fantasies without warning further shows how an assault can fracture someone's thoughts.

During a dinner party, Michelle casually explains her father's rampage. How he went door to door through their neighborhood, shooting and stabbing twenty-seven people. And, she adds grimly, their pets too. An image of a young Michelle, in her underwear and covered in ash, became the symbol of the attack. No explanation is provided for Dad's killing spree, the same way no explanation is provided by Michelle's rapist. Despite his violent history, Michelle proves stronger than her father. In another example of the film's men being feckless, Michelle promising to visit him in prison prompts her father to suicide. Michelle doesn't have a good relationship with her mom either, an elderly lady who is engaged to a much younger stud. (Who, it's heavily implied, is only marrying her for the money.) Mom insists Michelle visit her father, a notion she rejects. This raises several issues, such as Michelle's reluctance to commit to traditional roles and the question of whether or not anti-social instincts are inherited.

As I said, “Elle” probably would've generated controversy no matter what. Yet one aspect of the script seemed especially contentious. Midway through the film, we discover that the masked attacker is Patrick, the neighbor that Michelle has begun an affair with. Even after discovering this, she doesn't call off the relationship. He helps her out of the car wreck. They have a peaceful dinner. Later, he assaults her again at Michele's insistence, which seems to give her a powerful orgasm. This is another layer of complexity atop “Elle.” Human desire isn't simple. Maybe Michelle is attracted to Patrick because he's different, in a horrifying way, than the spineless men around her. Or maybe it's just another senseless quirk of the universe. The film provides no easy answers, in its striving towards a human-like sense of complexity.

In the lead-up to “Elle's” release, Paul Verhoeven began describing the movie as his “rape comedy.” Which is probably another example of his shock value-laden sense of humor. Indeed, calling “Elle” a comedy is misleading, to say the least. However, one can see the darkest of humor within the film. After a tense conversation, Michelle's mother immediately keels over from a stroke. While mom's in the hospital, Michelle outright asks if the stroke was real or if she's just faking it. As her comatose mother begins to flat line, Michelle is more preoccupied with a malfunctioning TV. That same black humor is present in Michelle's interaction with her clueless son or meatheaded lover.

“Elle” is clearly Isabelle Huppert's film. Still, an excellent supporting cast was assembled. Laurent Lafitte as Patrick has the difficult job of playing a man who is charming in his normal life but, secretly, hides an evil perversity. Jonas Bloquet as Vincent, Michelle's son, also has a tricky role. Vincent must be enough of an idiot that he takes Josie's infidelity without question. He must also have something like an innocent side, coming off as not much more than a big kid. Both actors achieve these goals. Judith Marge as Irene, Michele's mother, displays a weathered sense of humor, having lived a hard life. Alice Isaaz, meanwhile, is perfectly bitchy as Vincent's girlfriend.

Another sign “Elle” is unmistakably a Verhoeven film is the way he litters the story with religious iconography. “Elle” begins around Christmas time. We see the neighbors set up a Nativity, where Patrick's wife comments on how much she loves the image of Baby Jesus. Later, during a party, we see Christmas mass playing on television. This is what spurns on Michele recounting of her dad's murders. All of these references to the Christ child play in contrast to Josie's pregnancy, as she's no Madonna and her child is clearly not the offspring of a virgin birth. I have no idea how this religious imagery plays into the movie's overall themes, other than Verhoeven seeing an excuse to indulge in another of his favorite habits.

Paul Verhoeven's return to Europe has produced some quality films, with “Black Book” and “Tricked” both being very good. “Elle,” however, is sure to stand up as one of his best films. It's a challenging motion picture but in an altogether different way then his other films. It presents a more mature perspective without loosing sight of what made the director special in the first place. Buoyed by an amazing Huppert performance, “Elle” impresses and lingers in the mind, haunting the viewer with the numerous questions – and no easy answers – it raises. [Grade: A]

The critical praise that greeted "Elle" has re-energized Paul Verhoeven's career. His next film has already been announced. "Blessed Virgin" is a fact-based story about a lesbian nun in the 17th century. A story of forbidden sex and religious imagery couldn't be more perfect for Verhoeven.

This Director Report Card has been exhausting at times - covering the RoboCop and Starship Troopers sequels was a mistake - but it has reaffirmed by belief that there's no other filmmaker out there quite like Paul Verhoeven.

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