"Provocateur" may be the word that best describes Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. The director's forays into science fiction mostly have resulted in cult favorites like RoboCop and Starship Troopers, violent and audacious films with a satirical bite not often found in sci-fi. When the subject turns to sex — as it often does for Verhoeven — audiences are confronted with lurid and oddly defiant films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. These movies subvert Hollywood conventions but seem more focused on getting under everyone's skin.
Showgirls has become an all-time classic of accidental camp, winning two Golden Raspberry Awards in 1995 for Worst Film and Worst Director of the year (and later earning a special Worst Film of the Decade award). But Verhoeven had the last laugh with Showgirls, not only because the film made a fortune on home video but also when he became the first filmmaker ever to show up at the Golden Raspberry ceremony to accept his awards. That devil-may-care attitude surely is what drove Verhoeven to create Elle, the world's first lighthearted rape-revenge fantasy thriller.
Now 78 and coming off a decade-long hiatus from feature films, Verhoeven reaches a new pinnacle of audacity with Elle. Shot in Paris with a French cast and crew and starring the great Isabelle Huppert — arguably the finest actress of the last three or four decades — Elle arrives with the bearing of a sophisticated foreign film (though the director said that Elle only became French when no American actress was willing to take the lead role). But underneath the facade, Elle is pure Verhoeven: self-possessed, confrontational and guaranteed to offend a wide range of viewers.
The film begins with a violent rape scene shot from the detached perspective of a house cat as the pet's owner, Michele (Huppert), attempts to fend off a masked intruder. Instead of assuming the role of victim, Michele brushes herself off and goes on with her life, only gradually becoming curious about who might have perpetrated the assault.
There are many suspects, not only because Michele co-owns a successful videogame company with a lot of male employees who dislike her, but also because she manipulates or abuses just about all the men (and women) in her life. The story doesn't really begin until Michele identifies her attacker and responds to the news in a variety of troubling and unpredictable ways that seem designed to provoke feminists in particular.
It would be hard to overstate the heroic nature of Huppert's performance, which may be the only thing saving Elle from Showgirls-like status. The focus of virtually every scene in the two hours-plus film, Huppert transforms the deeply ambiguous Michele into a source of mystery as we struggle to understand the character's true motivations and behavior. Huppert brings some jet-black humor to the film, making it appear smarter and more idea-driven than it deserves credit for being.
If there's an underlying message to Elle, it may be that we're all culpable for the wrongs we do each other — and that anyone can learn something from their responses to a movie like this. If nothing else, Elle represents an opportunity to fully accept the challenges posed by a uniquely provocative film. See it with a large group that includes both genders and a variety of perspectives, and watch the sparks fly in post-movie discussion. If dull predictability is the primary sin of today's mainstream filmmakers, then Verhoeven may be some kind of saint.