I’ve been lucky and privileged enough in my life that I’ve never had to give much consideration to the idea of “trigger warnings.” But I feel confident in saying that if ever a movie earned one, it would be Paul Verhoeven’s bracing new psychological thriller, Elle. Its depiction of rape is uncompromising—the film actually starts mid-rape—but in our climate of vicious alt-right misogyny, it’s as timely as a fresh wound. The depiction of the rape’s aftermath, though equally tough, is intentionally difficult to parse. Verhoeven offers us no catharsis. Or at least not one we want.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle, an upper middle class divorcée who co-owns a company that develops videogames and who lives alone, save for the frequent visits from her directionless son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). It’s while waiting for Vincent to come over for dinner, in fact, that a man in a ski mask has forced his way in through the back door of Michèle’s bourgeois Paris home, pinned her to the hardwood floor and, as we join the action, is raping her. Then he leaves the way he came in. At first, Michèle’s reaction appears perhaps to be one of shock. She adjusts her hair and clothes, tidies up the room and orders delivery. The next morning, she makes a call to have the locks changed but she does not go to the police or tell a friend or even, it seems, acknowledge that anything has happened at all. Gradually, though, she begins to turn her attention to tracking down her attacker on her own.
Michèle’s job in the videogame industry is no quirky detail. Verhoeven intentionally submerges her, the day after her assault, in a room where she must watch violent, sexually charged footage of her new game’s scantily clad female protagonist being set upon by a demon with a sharp, phallic tail and then stand up before the team of developers, made up almost entirely of young men, and give her critique. The resentment Michèle’s male employees feel toward their strong, fearless female boss comes off them in waves. It stinks of anger but also of fear. It’s impossible not to be reminded of the equally toxic insecurity that inspired the vile, pathetic hissy fits and convulsions of the Gamergate mob. This is likely not a coincidence.
If you’re expecting Elle to be a galvanizing female empowerment tale, you will be disappointed, if not confused and offended. Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (adapting Philippe Djian’s novel) soon introduce a bizarre backstory for Michèle. The particulars are teased out over the course of the story and it would be best not to reveal them here but her past strongly complicates and dilutes the audience’s ability to sympathize with her.
Elle, just like Michèle herself, is shockingly unsentimental. In fact, both the film and its protagonist could rightly be described as anti-sentimental. That open disregard for pathos frees Verhoeven to go for broke with his usual empirical indulgences. Even without cyborg cops with massive guns or giant spiders that crush and impale, Elle is a grippingly visceral film. Verhoeven has always been a bit of a technocrat, like Robert Zemeckis but with more of an appetite for gore than mawkishness, and here he employs sound design in the absence of CGI to the utmost effect. Whether it’s the wind slamming open the shutter or a fist connecting with Michèle’s cheekbone, you’re sure to feel it in your gut.
Elle is a unique and vital movie that executes its problematic narrative and character work with zero timidity. Only a master craftsman like Verhoeven could be this forceful while never being reckless. See it but consider yourself warned.