Though I’m going to go ahead and follow my usual practice of typing out a bunch of words, I think the ideal way to evaluate the new film Elle is with an artfully constructed infographic. This helpful guide would take individual moments from the film and measure whether their inner being is guided more by the aura of French cinema or by the ruddy instincts of director Paul Verhoeven. The scene in which a woman confronts the new, young lover of her ex-husband and the two of them conclude that, with the tension of an initial encounter out of the way, they are ready to be friends? Very French, but not very Verhoeven. Then there’s the scene in which a woman casually moves a wastebasket into place so she can administer a hand job that she’s been mildly bullied into? Extremely Verhoeven, but only sorta French.
Elle is based on the French novel Oh…, written by Phillippe Djian. Adapted by David Birke, the film introduces Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) as she is being sexually assaulted by a masked intruder in her home. Though clearly harmed by the attack, Michèle responds by quickly composing herself and putting things back in order. She’s more concerned with sweeping up the broken glassware than she is with contacting the authorities. When she eventually reveals to others what she’s gone through, it is without a hint of linger trauma, as if she’s primarily bothered by the perceived obligation to share the news. She seeks to supplement her supply or defenses and keeps a wary eye on the street, but there’s a deep sense that her reaction is colored by some odd, internal complications.
Huppert is masterful at playing the veiled layers of the character. She downplays the vulnerability and girds the portrayal with a challenging abrasiveness. It’s clear that Michèle is a difficult person, and Huppert does shy away from those planes of the role. Beyond giving the character a fascinating edge, Huppert’s acting goes a long way towards bringing cohesion to the whole endeavor, even when the rigors of the narrative get nudged out of place by Verhoeven’s provocateur proclivities.
Elle demands the psychological steadiness of a steadiness of a modern Hitchcock. In Verhoeven, it has a showman who wields a disciplined camera, but also helplessly caves in to lurid delights. Tonal and structurally, Verhoeven keeps slipping into the visual cadence of all of the deviant nineteen-nineties thrillers that anxiously sought to replicate the success of his own Basic Instinct. The music for Elle, composed by Anne Dudley, even has echoes of the yearning strings of Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score from the 1992 hit. To the degree that Verhoeven often seems to be engaged in a continuous act of self-parody, maybe subconsciously, the careening from fierce character study and queasy social critique into hoary thriller tropes can arguably be excused, or at least understood. No matter the intent, though, multiple individual moments in the film play poorly, compromising the best of what’s in place.
Elle doesn’t have to fine art to be worthwhile. Even so, it would be nice if it didn’t occasionally skate so close to sort of greasy trash that Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas used to rap out with shameless abandon. In the end, I guess I’d prefer a little more French and a touch less Verhoeven.