Isabelle Huppert meets Paul Verhoeven. On the face of it, the combination of one of the world’s most incisive actresses and one of its most idiosyncratic filmmakers would seem to guarantee a cinematic firestorm. After all, Dutch international exciter Verhoeven created such hectic entertainments as Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, RoboCop, and Total Recall, in a filmography devoted to war, criminality, and routine depravity. Verhoeven lives to shock, but in a cool, off-handedly European way.
Character portrayer par excellence Huppert, meanwhile, is responsible for La Cérémonie and Story of Women — both of those for director Claude Chabrol — among a long list of challenging portrayals of difficult-to-love females. If Huppert had made nothing other than Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, she would go into the books as one of the most provocative figures in French film. But she’s accomplished much more than that.
Which brings us to their first collaboration, Elle. Michèle (Huppert) is a sophisticated, middle-aged Parisienne divorcee having a bad week. Or perhaps a faulty life. The daughter of an imprisoned mass murderer, Michèle nevertheless thrives as CEO of a video game company, but her accomplishments don’t prevent her from being spat on by passersby who remember her father’s crimes. Her son (Jonas Bloquet) is a nincompoop with a manipulative, cheating wife (Alice Isaaz). Her ditzy mother (Judith Magre) mouses around with a gigolo (Raphaël Lenglet). Michèle bickers with an insubordinate employee at work (Lucas Prisor) as well as with her ex (Charles Berling). What a load of horrid people.
You’d think that Verhoeven — working from a script adapted from a novel by Philippe Djian — would have piled enough on poor Michèle for three movies, but he’s not finished. She is violently raped in her home by a man who returns to repeat the assault, in person and in her nightmares. As if to demonstrate her endurance, she makes a point of casually insulting everyone she encounters. None of the adversities inconvenience her in the slightest. She glides through the hyper-melodramatic scenario as if nothing is wrong, refusing to fold by sheer will. The indignities and mishaps are so numerous that they become comical. The emotional violence is enormous but Huppert manages it all with a grim smile and so, we imagine, does Verhoven. Elle makes David Mamet look like the Marx Brothers. It wears us out, and we leave with a feeling of relief.