Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, whose “Basic Instinct” opened the Cannes Film Festival in competition 25 years ago, returns to the realm of dark sexual fantasy in the Americanized French thriller “Elle,” the last competition film to screen at Cannes. Now Isabelle Huppert has two gigantic performances heading toward the fall awards circuit: Mia Hansen-Love’s Berlin hit “Things to Come” (Sundance Selects) and “Elle” (Sony Pictures Classics).
Advance buzz promised controversy with the suggestion that the film’s videogame entrepreneur (exquisitely played by Huppert), is not only viciously violated in the film’s opening scene, but actually falls for her rapist. That is not true. She chooses to deal with the violent break-in, rape and continued contact with the rapist in her own way, and for her own reasons.
That’s because the film, like the novel, plays in an overtly sexy way with the realm of violent sex. Verhoeven said that this film interested him more than anything Hollywood has sent him —”I can’t find really interesting American scripts”— and wishes the studios would return to the land of normal people, he said. “The story of us is more interesting than the death of the superhero.”
“It was a minor miracle to find something so new that I’d never done before,” he told Canal Plus. At the festival press conference he compared the movie to Jean Renoir’s sprawling “The Rules of Game,” “with elements of tragedy, comedy and tension.”
At the largely polite press gathering, Verhoeven’s actors thanked him for deciding not to make a Hollywood movie in favor of a French one, and for relearning their language. Screenwriter David Birke gave the adaptation of Philippe Dijan’s novel a more compact and visual thriller structure, Verhoeven said, which was very American. But as he and producer Saïd Ben Saïd (who works with Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma) had trouble finding the right star to play the lead role of an elegant woman who is raped in her home and refuses to call the police—preferring to buy pepper spray and learn how to shoot— they found out that Huppert was interested. So Verhoeven decided to direct his first French movie. “It’s a hybrid,” he said.
“My country is the cinema,” said Ben Saïd. “Not France or Tunisia.”
“Isabelle made it French,” Verhoeven added. “Paris and France gave me Isabelle. She could only exist in France.”
For her part Huppert liked the fact that the movie doesn’t explain the characters, but rather let’s them react to what’s happening to them. “You don’t know exactly what she thinks or what she is,” she said. “She’s not an object. She’s not suffering what is imposed on her. She wants to control the situation.”
Novelist Dijan agreed: “A woman falls in love with a rapist is not the case at all. She tries not to obey the codes approved by society. She has to be free. This is her own personal freedom. It’s frightening, people don’t like women to be free. She’s a very free woman who wants to act as she likes and not follow societal codes.”
Verhoeven rejected any Freudian interpretations of the characters’ behavior, preferring to let the audience connect the dots. “There are just things that happen,” he said. “More than any movie I’ve done it leaves things open for the audience…I am the same person I was at six years old, doing things my best friends hated.”
“The film is full of ambiguity and mystery,” said Huppert, “and yet it’s full of suspense.” When asked if she worried that the film would offend people, Huppert said, “No. Not really. The story shouldn’t be seen as a realistic story. It’s not a statement about women being raped. Philippe’s book and Paul’s film have to be taken like a tale or a fantasy, something inside yourself, you couldn’t confess in your inner thoughts. Paul projects it on screen. It doesn’t happen to all women. This is a particular story about this woman as an individual, not women in general.”
Verhoeven hired Jacques Audiard’s cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (“A Prophet,” Rust and Bone”), who shot with two HD cameras constantly running with a “loose camera style,” he said, “to give them a lot of freedom.”
Next up: Verhoeven plans to make another Dutch movie (possibly for television) based on the French book “Bel Ami” by Guy de Maupassant, and is currently working with his screenwriter Gerard Soeteman. And he’s developing a feature about Jesus of Nazareth.
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