Probably the best way to describe Elle, the critically acclaimed film starring renowned French actress Isabelle Huppert, would be “busy.” There’s a lot going on in this movie. Based on the novel “Oh…” by the French writer Philippe Djian, the screenplay for Elle was first written in English, but after the Dutch/American director Paul Verhoeven decided that he could be a lot more politically incorrect in France than he could in the United States, it was translated into French, and the setting moved from “Boston or Chicago” to Paris. That much Verhoeven got right. The only actress who could have carried off the role Michèle Leblanc, a video game industry CEO and rape victim, is Isabelle Huppert. Had Verhoeven cast Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore as he originally intended, Elle would have not only been a busy mess. It would have been a busy mess that just made us cringe.
There’s no question that Elle can engaging movie, at least for the first half. I can understand why such a brutal, cold-hearted, essentially soulless film fooled Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A/V Club. There’s also the fact that a lot of people really don’t have to confidence to take a Paul Verhoeven film at face value. In the 1990s, he made a film called Starship Troopers. I didn’t think too much of it one way or the other. Young Denise Richards had a certain sex appeal. The kid who played Doogie Howser got his first role as an adult. Some of the special effects were OK, but that was about it. Yet somehow, at least on the Internet, a critical consensus formed that Starship Troopers was a brilliant, tongue in cheek satire on militarism, and if you didn’t get it you just weren’t as smart as Paul Verhoeven. Some critics have begun to argue the same thing about Elle, that you can’t take it at face value.
I’m going to take it at face value.
(Also: Spoiler alert. It’s impossible to write about Elle without spoiling it, so if you haven’t seen it yet you might not want to read any further.)
Elle opens with a cat impassively observing a rape. Cats, as the cliché goes, are assholes. Michèle Leblanc, the cat’s owner, is being attacked by a tall man in a black body suit and a black mask. After he leaves, Leblanc, who’s a busy tech industry CEO, doesn’t have time to go to the cops, let alone go to therapy and deal with trauma of being violated in her own home. She goes right back to work. Michelle is the CEO of a video game company. I don’t know if the “Gamergate” controversy is as big in France as it is in the United States – I suspect it’s not – but Leblanc’s company is staffed almost entirely by young bros in their twenties. For an American, the setup is obvious. Not only does Leblanc’s company make extremely violent video games designed to appeal to young bros in their twenties, one of those young bros is probably the rapist. Or so we think. But then Verhoeven throws us his first curve ball.
Leblanc is disappointed that Kurt, the head programmer bro, whom we’re supposed believe is the rapist, hasn’t made the game violent enough. She wants more. This naturally pisses off Kurt. Programmers, like cat, are assholes. Soon Leblanc gets exactly what she wants, more violence. A “tentacle rape” (don’t Google it) video begins to circulate with Leblanc’s face clumsily superimposed on the victim’s body. We begin to wonder, exactly as Verhoeven intends, which of the young bros at Michelle Leblanc’s company resents having a woman boss so much that it’s turned him into a rapist and a stalker. We also begin to wonder what kind of woman could shrug off a rape as easily as John Wayne shrugs off a flesh wound in a war movie, how she can possibly continue to work at a company that just might employ the man who’s violently assaulted her in her own home in front of her own cat. When a fat girl, the kind who we can all imagine has a Tumblr account where she’s declared herself a “feminist killjoy,” spills food on Leblanc in a restaurant and calls her “scum,” it’s almost impossible not to conclude that Paul Verhoeven has made his “Gamergate” movie, that Leblanc is a female Quisling, a self-hating woman who has decided that profit – cha ching – is more powerful than sisterhood.
When he meet Michèle Leblanc’s family and her neighbors, however, the more discerning among us will begin to suspect that the whole Gamergate angle might just be misdirection. The rest of us all will, as Verhoeven is hoping, just be confused by the whole shit show. There’s a lot going on in Michèle Leblanc’s life. As I pointed out, the best way to describe this film is “busy.” Michèle has an idiot slacker son in his twenties, a loser who works as a manager in an ice cream shop and who’s married to an abusive, and very pregnant, young woman who sleeps around. Leblanc makes no secret of her contempt for her future daughter-in-law, or her suspicion the baby isn’t her son’s. She also agrees to pay their rent. Michèle also having an affair with the husband of a colleague – at some point it’s hard to keep track of exactly who Michèle is sleeping with — and another man, a failed writer named Richard who’s trying to make the transition from writing novels to the far more lucrative career of writing video games. She has a neighbor, a handsome investment banker named “Patrick,” who has a beautiful, yet painfully Catholic wife, a man she wants to add to her growing stable of lovers. Two men aren’t enough? Are you confused yet? If you are that’s entirely Verhoeven’s intention, to throw so many stories at you that you lose all sense of critical perspective, and you allow him to say anything he wants without examining what he’s really trying to tell you. In any event, if you’re already confused, as you should be, you won’t be prepared for the next curve ball. When we meet Leblanc’s mother, an elderly Botoxed woman with a twentysomething gigolo for a boyfriend played by the ninety-year-old Judith Magre, Verhoeven’s confronts us with the mother of all backstories.
Michèle Leblanc’s father is the French Charles Manson.
Did you get that? He’s the French Charles Manson. Or maybe the French Timothy McVeigh or the French Dylan Roof. But whatever he is, he’s a serial killer.
There’s more. Not only is Michèle Lablanc’s father a serial killer. Michèle herself, as a little girl, probably assisted him in his crimes. Ah, we realize, the woman who dumped food on Michèle in the restaurant wasn’t an angry feminist pissed off about violent video games. She’s recognized Michèle as the daughter of a man who decades before snuffed out dozens of innocent lives. It’s also the moment I realized just what a piece of crap the film is. Verhoeven has copped out and covered his ass. Of course Michèle Leblanc can shrug off a rape as easily as a common cold. She’s not a normal woman. She’s the daughter of a sociopath. She witnessed multiple mass murders when she was a little girl. She’s lucky she can feel anything. At this point, if you have any self-respect, you’ll just walk out. You won’t even bother trying to figure out who the rapist is – it’s the banker with the religious wife – or why Michèle agreed to play such a perverse game of cat and mouse. Is she punishing herself for what her father did? Well maybe. According to some of the reviews, Verhoeven is making a daring statement on the “meaning of consent.” Yeah. Right. And if you buy that I have a bridge over the East River if you’re interested in buying it. Why so many film critics missed how they were watching the torture of a woman who, in real life, would be suffering from a massive case of post-traumatic-stress disorder, is beyond me. I guess they were just worried about not being in on the joke. I’m not. Paul Verhoeven is a sick motherfucker who’s decided to spare us Americans and inflict himself on the French, and if the French buy into this self-consciously edgy trash, they deserve it.
Just about the only character we end up caring about is the cat.