If you know me, you know that I love the movie RoboCop (1987), directed by Paul Verhoeven. It’s over the top and full of action, but it’s also very dark, satirical, and bloody. It wouldn’t be out there to refer to Verhoeven as an auteur, as virtually all of his movies, as least the ones by him I’ve seen, tend to lean toward this style of unabashed forwardness when it comes to the portrayal of violence and male and female sexuality. The smartest character in RoboCop is Peter Weller’s female partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who helps save Weller’s life in the second act, and the main antagonist is a businessman unapologetically named “Dick”, who kills coworkers to climb the corporate ladder.
Where Verhoeven usually wins or loses his audiences with this kind of approach is in how well he wraps it in an entertaining satire, which is another one of his well-known trademarks. People getting limbs blown off in combat is too pointlessly gruesome, and male and female soldiers showering naked together is just crass, but punch up the script with dialogue and characters so over-the-top and ridiculous that it’s subtle, change the name to Starship Troopers (1997), and you got yourself a fun satirical war film. Unfortunately this hasn’t always worked out well for Verhoeven. Showgirls (1995) was destroyed by prudish critics of the time and Hollow Man (2000) was such a dud film for even Verhoeven that he felt it necessary to leave Hollywood and return to his native Holland.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Verhoeven has come out with a comeback film in more ways than one. Elle (2016), the French-language Golden Palm contender, is a film about video game company executive Michele Leblanc, who is raped in her home in the film’s opening by a masked man. The rest of the film is spent following Michele go through her daily life while she also tries to figure out who her assailant was. Obviously, tackling rape as a major subject matter in your movie is never easy or something that should be taken lightly. I was almost disappointed by the film’s opening because it’s not like rapists are masked criminals seeking out victims; in fact they’re almost always someone you know and trust. Thankfully, the director I admire does not drop the ball in this regard. Similarly to Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), the story in Elle serves to act as a sort of deconstruction of gender relations and sexual dynamics between straight cisgendered men and women. Starting the film off with this assault makes us as cynical and suspicious of the men in Michele’s life as she becomes, and we learn more about how Michele’s assertive nature has affected the various relationships in her life as the film goes on. A disgruntled head developer at her company becomes a prime suspect, and even the men she has friendlier relationships with, like her ex-husband, can’t be trusted.
However, the movie doesn’t totally feel like you’re watching a pulse-pounding thriller or even an over the top rape-revenge satire that you could expect to see from Verhoeven. Rather, Elle is very non-traditional in its structure and pacing, and it made me feel like I was actually following Michele’s real life. I couldn’t track or predict beats in the script because Isabelle Huppert’s performance is extremely captivating and the writing is really damn good. The multiple relationships she has with so many different three-dimensional characters are all complex and dramatically interesting, which helps give Elle more of its realistic feel. It really does make you feel like the assailant Michele is after could be anyone. Not only this, but Huppert’s performance is so good that she makes all of the other performances seem more over the top in comparison, which I have no doubt was an intended choice by Verhoeven. This contrast allows you to notice more strongly how characters act and react to Michele, which further invests you in her characterization as an assertive, straightforward woman trying to do her thing, and this contrast also really helps hone in on the gender politics commentary that permeates the story.
This is crucial in a movie like this. Michele’s rape is the centerpiece of this movie, and you really understand more about rape and its underlying motivations and causes from Verhoeven cleverly having us focus in on how all the men in this movie act. However, no character in this movie is without sin. The female characters do their fair share of morally reprehensible acts, and, outside of rape and cheating, the range of questionable things that most of these characters do don’t entirely define them. Michele is involved in an affair with her best friend’s husband, and Michele’s well-meaning but meek son lashes out in anger when he can’t stand up to his girlfriend. This realistic style might seem out of character for a filmmaker known for more overtly over the top films, but his thumbprint is all over this film and he executes everything very intelligently with a near-flawlessness. Consider this review my trigger warning to those who need that heads up, but without a doubt this is a movie that more men absolutely have to see. I couldn’t help but think about my own relationships with people close to me when I left the theater by myself after I saw this movie, so I hope more men can benefit from this movie’s message and learn to not let their male pride get the better of them.