The success of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s has meant that critical appraisal tends to overlook the important body of work he directed in the Netherlands. The oversight is an issue because it obscures what his American films owe to his Dutch cultural heritage. The provocation and the sexual unorthodoxy of his works are evident from such early films as Turkish Delight, Spetters and The 4th Man, as is his sometimes blasphemous but at the same time deadly serious engagement with Christian morality.
The Netherlands is a country historically bifurcated by a deeply Calvinist strain of Protestantism as well as one of traditional Catholicism. There is a longstanding commitment to radical tolerance alongside an equally strong self-identification as one of the birthplaces of capitalism. The contradictions of that history keep erupting in Verhoeven’s work, from his consistent desire to épater les bourgeois while at the same time eroticising the economic transactions of sexuality, and from his fetishising the delirious excesses of big-budget moviemaking even as he pours scorn on the hypocritical morality that underlies the blockbuster. This means that his work can often be wildly inconsistent. Films such as RoboCop and Starship Troopers that playfully and gleefully make apparent the totalitarian aspirations that are at work in much of science fiction remain two of the singularly most pleasurable experiences I have had in a cinema. But a film such as Showgirls – where a soft-porn exploitation flick is grafted to socialist-feminist agit-prop – literally doesn’t make sense while you are watching it. Any fun to be gleaned has to be in the “what-the-fuck-was-that?” post-mortem conducted with friends after the screening.
Elle is Verhoeven’s first feature film in 10 years, and it is a French-language production starring Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, a tough-skinned partner in a company producing violent digital games. The film begins on a black screen and we hear the sounds of what at first seems to be orgiastic sex but it is soon revealed, through the point of view of Michèle’s cat, to be her horrific rape by a masked intruder. Right from the start, then, Verhoeven reveals that he is going to take on one of the most controversial of contemporary subjects, that of sexual assault against women, and in the blindingly fast set-up he also announces that he will be questioning any safe assumptions we might have of sympathy and of our gaze. That disquiet we feel at the very beginning of the film is further amplified by Michèle’s reaction to her rape. She cleans herself up and immediately resumes her life as an efficient businesswoman.
But it would be, I think, a wilfully misleading reading of the film to insist that Michèle remains unaffected by the violation of her body. We soon find out that she is the child of a notorious serial killer and that it is the stigmatisation and shame of that experience that has formed her stoicism. This almost forensic examination of shame is the film’s great strength, as it continually pivots our understanding of Michèle and that of her family and friends in relation to how they deal with shaming and stigma. Her ex, Richard, played by Charles Berling, is a novelist whose books have never sold and who is reduced to humiliating himself by begging for work among a millennial generation of gamers. She is having an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her friend and business partner, Anna, played by the luminously beautiful Anne Consigny. Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), Michèle’s son, is soon to be a father to a child who is not his, and Michèle’s mother, Irène (Judith Magre), is in love with a gigolo.
As the précis above suggests, the slights and humiliations that affect this circle are very much of the middle class. The film is best in its first hour where Verhoeven, along with his scriptwriter, David Birke, adapting a novel by Phillipe Djian, mine a blackly comic vein of social satire. The filmmakers are ruthless in exposing the pettiness and materialism of the French Parisienne bourgeoisie, and they do so across the generations. But Verhoeven’s saving grace, as it has often been in the past, is that this skewering of his characters’ delusions and vanities is free of puritan moralism and admonishment. His is a Catholic rather than a Protestant view of sin. He knows the temptations of the flesh and of the world and how seductive they are, and it is this almost instinctive sympathy that allows us both to laugh at Michèle but to be also affected by her coming to terms with the violations inflicted on her.
But Verhoeven is trying to keep too many balls in the air. Elle is social satire but it is also a thriller, with Michèle’s attacker continuing to stalk her, both at home and at work. As well, the director wants to raise philosophical questions of forgiveness and culpability, and he further wants to shock us with the transgressively erotic. It is with the latter that the film loses both conviction and authority. Michèle develops a fascination for and attraction to her rapist and that desire simply doesn’t make sense for the character. There isn’t a hint of masochism in Michèle’s sexuality or in her relationships with others. The film has the whiff of very stale postmodern psychoanalytic and cultural theory and it starts feeling like we are watching a dated erotic thriller from the ’80s. If the filmmakers had made Michèle discover a potential for sadism through her ordeal, that would have been consistent with her character, made sense of her involvement in the often violent computer gaming industry, and might have proved both shocking and compelling to watch.
Verhoeven is a skilled filmmaker and he directs with a puckish flair, with knowing nods to Hitchcock. But the implausibility of the desire that he foists on Michèle undermines our investment in her character and dilutes our fear for her. My sense is that Verhoeven has grown less animated by genre and by the frisson of the erotic that made earlier films such as The 4th Man and Basic Instinct such naughty, joyous viewing experiences. The real source of tension, and what keeps us involved in the film even as it grows flabby, is our desire to see Michèle confront her long-estranged father, the man who blighted her life from childhood. The choice the filmmakers make in terms of this confrontation indicates that they are aware that redemption is sometimes not possible. The film ends with a coda that seemingly resolves all the contradictions and tensions in Michèle’s life and those of her friends and family, including a nod to a happy ending in her relationship with Anna. But the too-neat resolutions hardly seem credible. Just earlier, Michèle has announced that she has “stopped lying”. But in both Huppert’s performance and in Verhoeven’s directing of her, we suspect that she has just learnt a new language, one of “closure” and “self-realisation”, and that the games of power and control that she plays are far from over.
Huppert is funny, sexy and wicked, and she is the strongest reason for seeing this film. The performance is being compared to her role in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher but her playing in Elle is in a different register, one that allows her to display her very fine comic skills. The art of her great work in the Haneke film is that she remained true to a character that was emotionally, sexually and existentially damaged by repression, and sometimes her commitment to the role was so brutally rigorous that it was difficult to watch. That was true masochism on screen and it felt that in maintaining our gaze we were forced into the role of the sadist. Verhoeven puts Michèle through the wringer but he also allows Huppert to have fun with the role. That she can make us believe in the depth of Michèle’s suffering but is not afraid to bring out the black comedy of her selfishness and unrepentant materialism is a testament to Huppert’s astounding range and control as an actor. There is a moment where she picks up her cat and gently reprimands it for not attacking her rapist. The comedy is in our awareness that owner and pet have much in common.
Near the end of the film, a neighbour says to Michèle of a character who has committed heinous crimes, “He was a good man but he had a tortured soul.” One wishes that with Elle Verhoeven had broken free of the clichéd Freudian abstractions of the narrative and more fully explored the challenge of how to make sense of forgiveness in a secular age. It is clear that this is what interests him now as an artist and I think his decision to pose the question of charity in a rape and vengeance story is an audacious but brave one. Michèle and the people in her world have long given up in believing in the soul and maybe they have gone beyond believing in good and evil altogether. I would have been happy for Verhoeven to risk falling into earnestness or irresolution by really grappling with the consequences of such a freedom. The fantastical dreamlike epilogue suggests that he knows that happy endings are as impossible for the rationalist and the sceptic, for the feminist and the liberal, as they are for the faithful and the believer.