I once had a (Caucasian) roommate, who while offering up the details of her deflowering, reported that afterwards she dreamed that six Latino men dressed in sarapes and sombreros, ritualistically tethered her to a wooden cross to punish her for her sin. The dream and the event that inspired it, took place several centuries after chivalry’s cult of the virgin tied sexual congress to the imperative of love. In “Elle,” director Paul Verhoeven tunnels full bore into the dark place where sex has less to do with love, and more with conquest, power, violence, chastisement, suffering, and guilt.
Set in Paris, “Elle” opens in media res. You hear, then see, a rape in progress. By virtue of a black screen and a camera poised behind the victim’s head, it is as if, with eyes closed against inadmissible shock, you, the viewer, are being raped. When enough is too much, the camera shuttles you back into context. It shows how this assault began seconds before, with the near-sonic crash of a heavy object shattering a glass door. The door gives way to a garden apartment in a gated community. Pinioned to the dining room floor, the victim cries out in terror. Cadenced thwacks of blows landed serially by a masked silent intruder, correct any misbegotten notion that rape is a trivial event, one that a woman could do well to recover from quickly, and go on about her business. But in “Elle,” that is precisely what the rape victim does.
Feeling uncomfortable? You’re supposed to. Verhoeven is making the point again (in case you missed it in his “Basic Instinct” and other films) that sexual relations are a maelstrom. If yuppies were perpetually asking themselves and each other, “Are we having fun yet?” Verhoeven is posing the same question but in different terms: “Does it hurt yet?”
From the opening shot to the movie’s asymmetrical conclusion, the film presents a nihilist’s microcosm, where a single grisly event turns the sacred cult of the virgin on its head, setting free the profaned demon it holds hostage. In “Elle,” that one pivotal act of malfeasance finds its echo in the gruesome rape.
The shattering glass foreshadows what we learn about the rape victim’s identity: Michèle is a peri-menopausal divorcée, who has “leaned in” just far enough to break through the business world’s slippery, if not stained, glass ceiling. She has ended up as doyenne and CEO of a video game company that specializes in sexually violent graphics. Her enterprise not only turns her a modest profit but creates a niche job for her lifelong best friend.
Isabelle Huppert plays the Michèle role by drawing on an instinct for measured lust, and allied emotions served at a lower temperature. Michèle hires young men to design graphic images of the most offensive sexual abuse of women that their or her imaginations can summon. The designers are about the same age as her spendthrift but semi-employed son, whose life mostly consists of backing into spaces left vacant by others. Unlike her son, who is in most ways harmless, Michèle’s game boys trade in cut-throat competition for its own sake. They are chameleons who hide their misanthropy under fifty shades of geek. They hate her because she’s the boss, a woman boss, and a woman boss with no qualms about playing the “bitch” card to get precise about rape porn she’s after, even when she’s unsure of her footing on their turf.
The rape and its aftermath—a series of anonymous texts and other communiqués—is to Michèle’s way of thinking, her private affair and no one else’s, until she decides to reveal selected tidbits to her ex, her best friend, and the dolt she’s sleeping with (the best friend’s husband). At first, it’s not clear why she won’t report the rape to the police, but over the course of the film, we learn that there is something terrible from her past that is captaining her behavior, and if the rape seems grotesque, the prior event is even more shattering, and also more controlling of her present than is the rape itself.
Otherwise top-notch writing by David Birke goes a little thin when it comes to suggesting possible suspects. Every male who could have a grievance might qualify. This flaw in no way detracts from the film’s overall spunk, thanks to taut acting by Huppert and expert cultivation of the sampler of mixed nuts who orbit Michèle. Besides her socially inept son, there is the son’s devil-spawn girlfriend; Michèle’s sexually excessive mother; a best friend whose homoerotic desire for Michèle comes to light at the story’s midpoint; the ex-husband whose every best effort shrinks in the shadow of Michèle’s thriving “got game” business; and a neighbor couple whose lack-luster lives make Michèle’s look scintillating by comparison. Nothing is as it seems among this claque of characters, twisted by their milieu to follow the contortions in self-serving schemas that bury darkest motives in a glare of neon halos.
Comic relief is the payoff for sitting through the reign of terror that could otherwise overtake and flatten “Elle.” It comes encrypted partly in the upset factor, the upside-down, inside-out of it, that turns every upper middle-class shibboleth on its head. It’s also found in the ironies that pop up out of the shadows when pretense fails. In contrast to the rapist’s full-on brutal attack, the film’s humor arrives in little wisps. It curls itself around situations that bubble up like gaseous excretions from a sordid massacre: The son’s baby is very obviously not his, but he’s the only one who doesn’t or won’t see it. When the ex-husband aptly assesses Michèle’s ulterior motives in inviting his girlfriend over for holiday festivities, she asks whether he thinks she has nothing better to do than sit around “plotting diabolical Christmas dinners.” Here Birke dips his pen into the audience’s reluctant and perhaps subconscious acknowledgment that even the most tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la of Christmas dinners carries a soupçon of the diabolical.
Apart from those who don’t qualify to see an R-rated film, no one should miss this masterpiece. “Elle” folds farce and trenchant social commentary into a Palme d’Or thriller. It deserves a place of honor alongside “Dial M for Murder” and “Wait Until Dark,” with the understanding that its comic moments are like finding that what at first glance looked like raisins in your oatmeal cookie, are actually chocolate chips.