At the fancy Christmas dinner she hosts in her posh Paris home, a stylish entrepreneur named Michele, played to impassive perfection by Isabelle Huppert, verbally abuses her heavily Botoxed elderly mother and her mother's very-much-younger consort. She inflicts injury on the very-much-younger girlfriend of her former husband. She pokes fun at her ineffectual son, his partner, and their baby. She takes a covert swipe at her pretty Christian neighbor while initiating a game of footsie with that neighbor's handsome husband, a broker. By way of dessert she indulges, without noticeable pleasure, in some furtive post-prandial sex with her best friend and partner's husband. 'Tis the season!
I should add that by the time this jolly crew has convened halfway through Paul Verhoeven's sardonic thriller Elle, Michele has been violently raped several times on her living-room floor by a masked intruder clad head-to-toe in black leather or rubber or some other appealing fabric from the sado-masochist runway. The graphically detailed sexual assaults function as little more than a hiccup in Michele's busy life as the CEO of a raunchy videogame company that appears to be staffed by callow twelve-year-olds. Oh, and one of these young blades has circulated a creatively pornographic video of Michele being violated by a monster. I wouldn't say she doesn't turn a hair, but Michele goes about her business while wreaking malicious damage on those who get in her way, and on plenty who don't.
If you saw Huppert in Michael Haneke's 2001 erotic thriller The Piano Teacher, you'll know that she can serve up steely and kinky pretty much on demand. Behind her sustained deadpan in Elle and the misleading shades of beige in which she's clad lurks a barely contained ironist and black comedian channeling, with quiet glee, the bracing nihilism of the man who made Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Never was such flat affect delivered through such expressive eyes.
How you feel about this brutal, elegantly crafted film will depend in part on whether you regard nihilism as a moral/political philosophy or as a film language that gets us to rethink the tired pieties that appeal to our vanity. A provocateur to his core, Verhoeven wades breezily into hot-potato territory, all the while refusing moral judgment. This hasn't always worked: In Black Book (2006) he comes this close to suggesting that, ethically speaking, there was little room between the Nazis and the Dutch resistance. Elle is a far less blunt instrument, in part because the movie is cunningly ambiguous about what drives the strange woman at its center. The English-language screenplay for Elle, which Verhoeven had hoped to make in the United States, is adapted by David Birke from a French novel written under the influence of the mass murders committed by Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik. Faux news footage shows Michele at age ten, staring blankly into the camera at the scene when her now incarcerated father murdered a slew of neighbors who had asked him not to make the sign of the cross on their children's foreheads.
Now she's a successful, ruthless businesswoman who presides over a ludicrously dysfunctional ensemble of family, friends and employees whose loyalty to her is about as dependable as hers to them. Which at the very least brings enjoyably double-edged performances by Charles Berling as Michele's hapless husband, Anne Consigny as her best friend and business partner, Judith Magre as her mother, and Laurent Lafitte as her intriguing, handsome neighbor. There's not a soul in Elle who's above cheating and lying as needed, unless you count the lone committed Christian (Virginie Efira). And even she, it turns out, knows more than her blue saucer eyes let on.
However brutal Michele's past, Verhoeven won't allow us to jump to causal conclusions about her asocial behavior or the cat-and-mouse game she plays with her attacker. If you're looking for it, there's ample fodder in Michele's venal milieu for social commentary about the nasty post-millennial world we've created for ourselves. Humanity doesn't much impress Verhoeven, but though I could wish he didn't enjoy shoving the multiple rapes in our faces so much, he's not endorsing rape and I don't believe he's anti-feminist. After all, Michele's in charge, even if the director won't tip his hand about whether she's a plucky survivor, a complete psycho, or just a woman so blitzed by her childhood that she responds to almost every turn of the screw, her rape included, with the same unruffled calm. Only the sick games she plays with her aggressor seem to get her worked up. "Why did you do it?" she asks him when, fittingly, they end up duking it out in the basement of her house. "It was necessary," he answers. Over to you.