Paul Verhoeven's American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director’s weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven’s films outside of the states, however, tend to swap the 2x4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments.
Based on a novel by Philippe Djian, the plot follows a rich, gives-no-shits Parisian video game producer (Huppert), who suffers a horrific sexual assault at the hands of a masked home invader. After the attack, she proceeds to do... virtually nothing expected, investigating her friends and neighbors while moving towards an endgame that even she seems to find mysterious. Her small smile while buying an axe could launch a thousand think pieces.
Verhoeven, who learned French for the assignment, is ferociously on point throughout, seemingly positioning every shot and pause for maximum wrongness. (A recurring gag about Huppert’s meat-headed son’s unsuitability as a parent just kills, every time.) As uncomfortably sharp as his work behind the camera is, Elle would be unimaginable without Huppert, who takes things farther into the dark than most films could adequately contain, melding wit, haunted resolve, and jagged bouts of sensuality to unpredictable, fascinating effect. Even if Verhoeven’s deceptively jocular approach leaves you cold, the feelings of directorial manipulation fade whenever she’s on the screen. She’s the frog and the scorpion both.