Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Curve Ball: Paul Verhoeven's Elle

Isabelle Huppert and silent witness in Elle

In the opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by an assailant in a ski mask while her grey tabby cat quietly looks on. What Michèle feels about the violent assault, and how she will respond to it, are initially as mysterious to us as trying to read the thoughts of the feline who witnessed it. Afterwards, Michèle simply cleans up the mess and proceeds to have a hot bath, where, in the soap bubbles, she gathers the rising blood from her genitals into a miniature sculpture – and soon afterwards shares a contentious dinner with her son where they argue about the woman in his life. For those used to seeing genre films where rape, murder and betrayal get answered and explained in predicable ways, and can (in the worst pictures) even get exploited to heat up our blood lust, Elle goes completely against the grain. Rather than play to the most melodramatic kind of cause and effect – where sociology and dogmatism replace polymorphous sexuality and psychopathology – Verhoeven sets up a maze of possibilities to characterize a woman who doesn't get pinned down and defined by her circumstances. Not only will that approach upset those who have specific, narrow views of what constitutes rape victim response, but Elle doesn't even tell you if Michèle's behaviour grows out of the trauma of the assault. In fact, the more we get to know her, the more we see that any number of disturbing and bizarre moments have shaped her life. Elle builds its strength and its power by throwing curve balls at our expectations so that we have no choice but to take the character – and the movie – on its own terms rather than the terms we wish to impose on it.

Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to controversy, of course, having already established himself in the Netherlands years ago as its resident enfant terrible in films like Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983) with their explicit sexuality and hyperbolic violence. Yet despite the furor, his early work lacked the depth of a true taboo breaker because his rebelliousness often came across as impulsive and obvious. Drawing mustaches on sacred cows had the benefit of setting him apart from his targets and earning him the glory of a bad boy who had the smarts to see through all that bourgeois hypocrisy. There may have been movie-making vitality in those bold strokes of his, but the pictures soared on their sensationalism. Not to mention that Verhoeven didn't identify with the targets of his wrath so their social and ethical compromises never got under his skin. He was always on the right side – and so was the audience. This same problem persisted, but in a different way, when he came to America to make Hollywood genre pictures. Attempting to explode their clichés, he merely created new ones that appealed to a younger, attempting-to-be-hip audience rebelling against Hollywood's blockbuster obsessions in the eighties. In Robocop (1987), a cyberpunk crime thriller, the satiric point of social decay was so transparent and leaden that the movie was bludgeoning rather than illuminating. Starship Troopers (1997), with its heavy-metal Aryan SF satire, got so swallowed up by its own subject that it looked and felt like Aryan propaganda. The bland woodenness of the performers turned out not to be so much a deliberate joke on the genre as merely a fact of bad acting. Verhoeven was more safely in his comfort zone with the erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992), where he heated up the pulp without feeling the need to trash it. As for Showgirls (1995), it was tabloid junk right out of Valley of the Dolls but – despite all the critical grief he got for it – he gave himself over to the picture's purple prose instead of condescending to it. Showgirls had a lurid pulse that gave off a buzz that pictures of that kind seldom do.

Laurent Lafitte and Isabelle Huppert

In Elle, though, he's plumbing whole new dramatic depths and with the authority of a master director. It's the best material he's worked with yet (including his WW II drama, Black Book). Based on the novel, Oh..., by Phillipe Dijon (the author of Betty Blue), and with a screenplay by David Birke (Freeway Killer), Elle is a both a psychodrama and drama of morals where Verhoeven, who sets the film in France, probes the social institutions that hide and protect transgressive behaviour. As in Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (which Verhoeven has openly described as an influence and pays tribute to it in one scene), Michèle and her family and friends are all bound by the social and class institutions that blind them to their own behaviour. In the past, Verhoeven happily heaped anger on those institutions with the relish of a young and bold Luis Buñuel, but in Elle, he moves closer to the later, older Buñuel of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which he came to terms with the foibles of the middle class and chose to satirize them from the inside. In both cases, the absurdist humour grows out of the conduct of these characters rather than simply from the director's attack on them.

Although we find out more about Michèle after the rape, all it does is scramble our feelings about her ongoing behaviour rather than summing things up; the story doesn't necessarily follow the action. Michèle is the CEO of a successful video game company, where the men who work under her both resent and idolize her. The games they devise mirror the violence she has endured, but that reflection doesn't define who she is and why she's in charge. (We aren't even sure if the culprit who attacked her is one of her employees.) She is the daughter of an incarcerated serial killer who is coming up for parole, but what we learn about the childhood trauma is only that she has an intense hatred for her father and even deeper suspicions about the authorities because of how they investigated the case. Michèle is having an affair with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), yet that fact neither explains her sexual behaviour nor conveys any jealousy of Anna.

When Michèle becomes erotically transfixed on her neighbour, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a blandly handsome banker, it stirs the darker underpinnings of his marriage. His devout wife, Rebecca (Virginie Efira), clings to him as a lost soul to be saved. Again, however, rather than suggest a motivation for Patrick and Michèle's mutual obsession, this portrait of hsi marriage creates opportunity instead for playing out the drama between them unpredictably. In other words, Verhoeven doesn't provide pat answers for the pathology of his characters – especially Michèle – but instead allows them the autonomy to breathe their own air. Isabelle Huppert has been breathing her own air for some time and displaying surprising daring in a number of roles. Early in her career, when she appeared in pictures like Coup de Torchon (1981) and Heaven's Gate (1980), Huppert was an opaque presence that you couldn't truly account for. But in recent years she has become an actress of subtle strength. In Elle, Huppert sets the mood of the picture rather than becoming an instrument of it and she gives a stunning performance of measured control. Michèle is not a victim of others – even when she is raped – but a woman who uses fortuity to test herself as if she's tempting the demon within. Huppert is the still, yet tightly wound, center of a cast of characters who slowly revolve around her as if she's a mystery to be unraveled.

There's a radical new realism blooming in the impressionistic shades of Elle. The dynamic cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine is so luxuriantly dark and rich, it enhances the movie's disquieting suspense and helps assure that it never feels laboured. Anne Dudley's score, with its hints of Bernard Herrmann, brews on low heat in the background. Elle is as symphonic in its orchestration as Basic Instinct, but Verhoeven is so relaxed with each movement that he resists the scherzos that used to jack up his scenes (like the scatological Marat/Sade madhouse sequence in Black Book). Ultimately, Elle does satisfy the mechanics of the thriller genre by resolving the opening rape scene, but Verhoeven doesn't do it mechanically. Instead he works from the plausibility in the story. Elle is one of the rare suspense pictures that has such supple depth and assurance that it doesn't need to work the audience over with dread. Rather it locates the dread that lurks under the surface of our civilization and all its discontents. Verhoeven's bad-boy laugh is no longer a guffaw.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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