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Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ is a Lighthearted Rape-Revenge Story

Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven's 'Elle' is a Lighthearted Rape-Revenge Story

Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” begins with a laugh that catches in your throat: A wide-eyed cat looks off-screen to the screams of a man and woman in apparent orgiastic bliss. Then comes the cutaway, which reveals a far more nefarious incident: Middle-aged Michéle (Isabelle Huppert), in the process of getting raped by a masked assailant on the floor of her home. Once he dashes out the door, Michéle simply lies there, gazing up at the ceiling, and it’s not clear if she’s traumatized or intrigued.

So goes the rest of the movie, a typically subversive twist on a familiar family drama from a master of turning genres inside out. For his first French-language production — and his first feature-length film in a decade — the 77-year-old filmmaker has delivered his most contained work in years, a dark comedy about sexual urges and other passions closer in form to 1973’s “Turkish Delight” than anything he’s made since.

Faced with the challenge of carrying a lighthearted comedy about rape, Huppert imbues Michéle with terrific ambiguity. A workaholic game designer whose serial killer father has been locked up for years, she spends her days barking at staffers, engaging in an affair with Patrick (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend (Anne Consigny) and barking at her young adult son (Jonas Bloquet), who’s stuck in a dead-end marriage and can’t seem to get his life back on track. Michéle’s biggest hurdle comes from her demanding mother (Judith Magre), a diva spending her days sleeping with a much younger man and fretting over her killer husband’s request for an appeal.

With all these neurotic elements in play, Michéle lies at the center of a world filled with clashing egos and smarmy asides. Adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel, the script — co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke — puts as much emphasis on the workaholic character’s ferocious personality as the impact of the terrible invasion she experiences at the beginning. Rather than sounding the alarm, she initially keeps the incident to herself, hinting at the unsettling possibility that the horrific moment somehow injected fresh energy into her life.

Verhoeven slowly reveals the physical impact of the rape on Michéle, foregrounding her initial attempts to block it out. Sitting a bubble bath, she suddenly notices a pool of blood gathering around her; at night, she sleeps with a hammer. But later, once she’s spent more time bouncing between the various high-strung people in her hectic world, she’s imagining a fantasy in which the event played out quite differently — and when the apparent assailant begins texting her and invading her home when she’s away, “Elle” gives its protagonist the chance to envision a form of revenge. She ultimately gets it — but not in the way one might expect.

Constantly poking at the whiny problems of upper-class French society, Verhoeven takes a page from Michael Haneke’s playbook, with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s brightly-lit interiors accentuating the yawning interiors of the palatial homes where most of the action takes place. From her bored liaison with Patrick to the grief she heaps on to her son, Michéle’s life is a series of unsatisfying circumstances. The twisted mystery of her new admirer provides her with an unexpected source of escape.

“Elle” doesn’t always maintain the clever balance of naughtiness and dramatic confrontations that make it such an appealingly unconventional romp. Its obnoxious ensemble grows weary and redundant with time. The conflicts between these self-involved people often feels undercooked. Fortunately, Huppert’s fierce turn and focused gaze remains at the center of the beguiling story, which offers more than one fascinating twist. Ninety minutes in, the rapist’s identity is revealed, which gives Verhoeven another 40 minutes to let Michéle figure out what she wants to do about it. The final act is the intellectual’s answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an ambitious statement about the ability to heal psychological wounds with violent sex.

For Verhoeven, a return to this terrain shows the extent to which his career has followed whatever direction allows the best outlet for his vulgar inquisitiveness. Whether it’s the anti-imperialist bent of “Starship Troopers,” the Nazi love story “Black Book,” or the warped feminist stance found here, Verhoeven rarely fails at taking some modicum of familiar material and transforming it into a shrewder treatise on the boundaries of political correctness. In the case of “Elle,” Verhoeven has crafted a defiant tale about the ultimate antidote for fear lying in the ability to turn it into something else.

Grade: B+

“Elle” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It opens later this year.

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