Anyone familiar with the work of director Paul Verhoeven should expect a potent, visceral experience from the innocently-titled French film Elle. Isabelle Huppert is a superb actress whose face can become a mask, hiding or revealing her feelings as she chooses. Here she plays a complex, often unlikable woman who is brutally raped at the beginning of the story, which leads her to make a series of unusual choices.
There is no subtlety in the revelation that the heroine heads a company that produces video games in which the female characters are victimized—though never viciously enough to suit her. Huppert’s character enjoys having control over her male employees, a power she can’t exert as efficiently in her private life with an ex-husband, son, and illicit lover.
Elle was adapted by David Birke from a novel called Oh… by Philippe Dijan. I don’t know what, if any, changes or additions Verhoeven brought to the screenplay, but it’s certain that he didn’t shirk from depicting every twist of its strange, sometimes darkly funny story.
The Dutch-born director is a past master at making love-them-or-hate-them movies, notably his Hollywood collaboration with writer Joe Eszterhas, Showgirls. Whether it’s Spetters, Robocop or Basic Instinct, this is a man who is incapable of boring an audience and willing to tackle the touchiest of subjects without a shred of political correctness. Learning that he describes this wildly unpredictable film as “amoral” should serve as ample warning to anyone who might be anticipating a French romance with a beautiful star.
Elle is an outrageous mix of psychological thriller and character study in which that character is a mass of contradictions. Only an actress as skillful as Huppert could play her to the hilt and not repel us.