Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has given us unforgettable movies like “Robocop,” “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct,” and he had gleeful fun satirizing the war propaganda machine with “Starship Troopers.” Now he returns with his first movie in ten years, his last being the excellent “Black Book,” the psychological thriller “Elle” which stars the brilliant (and not to mention brave) French actress Isabelle Huppert. From watching the trailer, it looks like Verhoeven is up to his usual button-pushing tricks, but the viewer should not go into this expecting “Basic Instinct” redux.
Based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the head of a leading video game company, and the plot synopsis describes her as seemingly “indestructible” as she “brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business.” As the movie’s trailer begins, Michèle is at a dinner party where she tells a group of friends she was sexually assaulted, and she presents this confession in a calm and collected manner. Whereas you might expect a scene where a rape victim has a nervous breakdown as she accepts the reality of what she’s been through, Michèle doesn’t even blink an eye. Her friends, however, are shocked at this news to where they encourage the waiter, who has just brought a lovely bottle of wine, to come back in a few minutes.
Throughout the trailer, we see Michèle go about her work and life as if nothing has changed, but it becomes clear the attack has forever left a huge psychological scar on her which cannot be wiped away. Her need for revenge is understandable, and Verhoeven’s movies are well known for their characters getting vicious revenge on their attackers, and the trailer shows her as a ticking bomb waiting to go off. In the end, one can remain cool for only so long.
“Elle” is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, and they recently unveiled a clip from the movie titled “Empty Stare.” Watching this clip, there’s no doubt Verhoeven picked the right actress to star here. Huppert has taken on challenging roles in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” Christophe Honoré’s “Ma Mère” and Claude Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie,” and she looks to have risen to the challenges Verhoeven has put in front of her here. As Michèle tells an unsettling story about her father to a male friend, Huppert makes you wonder if she is telling the truth or simply playing around with someone who doesn’t know her very well. The beauty of watching Huppert is how she creates such vivid and frightening imagery with just words. Other directors would add flashbacks to give this scene more emotional power, but Verhoeven doesn’t need to do this when he has Huppert to work with.
“Elle” was shown at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it received critical acclaim and a seven-minute standing ovation. Guy Lodge of Variety proclaimed on Twitter that “Isabelle Huppert might be our best living actor, and ‘Elle’ might be Paul Verhoeven’s best film.” Verhoeven has said the movie is not to be mistaken for an “erotic thriller” in the vein of “Basic Instinct,” and that anyone who goes into it thinking it is will be “disillusioned.”
Adventurous moviegoers look to be in for a dark treat when “Elle” opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 11. Please be sure to check out the movie’s trailer and the “Empty Stare” clip below.
What makes this a particularly interesting sexual thriller is its deliberate ambivalence; Elle is both a perpetrator and a victim of sexual violence. The video game company she leads is at the dirty end of the game spectrum and her life is a parallel universe of hypocrisy. Fascinating film.