Paul Verhoeven is a twisted human being, but I’m sure if you asked him about that he would claim that he is no more twisted than anyone else. He is a filmmaker who has grounded his work in a blatant skepticism toward the inherent goodness of humanity, but often he cloaks his cynicism in science fiction and satire, a tactic that allows for exaggeration and farce that makes the extremity of that worldview one step removed from being unrelatable to a general audience. That’s what makes Elle such a gamble; Verhoeven has taken the philosophy that has served him so well for decades as a satirist and has crafted a film with no pretentions toward fantasy or political commentary. The commentary at play in Elle is entirely about human nature, and it’s not always a pretty picture.
The titular Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is one day assaulted in her own home and raped by a masked man. She continues through her life, not immediately telling anyone and maintaining her cold exterior as she directs the production of a violent video game at the company she founded. What starts as an exercise in empathy for a career-driven woman who feels she cannot report her own assault slowly starts to unravel into something more. We see that Michèle has her own flaws and engages in reprehensible behavior of her own, which ultimately culminates in actions that may make the audience grow cold to the notion that she is a protagonist we want to root for.
This is the sort of messaging that will likely alienate a lot of audience members, particularly because sexual assault is such a central part of the narrative and could be interpreted as saying that Michèle is deserving of what comes to her. I disagree with that assertion, but the argument is there to be made and should be acknowledged. What the film is really trying to explore, though, is whether or not the worst of humanity is also worthy of empathy when horrific things happen to them. Verhoeven is explicitly trying to evoke a muddied reaction from his audience, a confusion over who to attach themselves to and where they can draw catharsis. It’s a cruel sort of filmmaking, but a fascinating and intellectually engaging one.
And much like her other major film this year, Things To Come, Elle is the sort of film that would fall apart without the strength of Isabelle Huppert’s central performance. There is a perpetual temptation to paint Michèle is terms of moral absolutes, but Huppert is so deft at navigating the gray areas that it’s impossible to entirely pin her down. Yet Michèle remains an internally consistent character, with motivations that become clearer as time goes on yet never ceases surprising in the depths of her depravity or in the pain she has had to endure in her life. It’s an absolutely stunning performance that absolutely deserves the recognition it’s receiving this awards season.
The moral ambiguity is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but if you happen to be on Elle‘s wavelength it is a bittersweet and deeply contemplative experience. Even if you fundamentally disagree with Verhoeven’s bleak view of human nature, the craftsmanship and artistry of the film is undeniable. If you are a cynic—or perhaps just a realist—then Elle might just be the film for you. If not, tread lightly, and be prepared to walk out of the theater.