It’s funny to think that Paul Verhoeven used to direct so many classics of ’80s and ’90s Americana — Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers — because his latest movie feels like almost as much a parody of Europeans as Nick Kroll’s Spotted Ox hostel sketch. Elle really has it all — problematic sexuality, an obsession with “naughtiness,” a slapsticky tone that makes even the dramatic moments feel like dark Jerry Lewis sketches, a pathological need to needle Catholicism, and of course, enough passive-aggressive, red wine-fueled tête-à-têtes to make you feel like you need a chocolate cigarette. Verhoeven’s first French film (an adaptation of a novel by Phillippe Dijan), Elle has plenty of his old provocativeness, but it feels subdued, like he’s sublimated his penchant for unapologetic schlock for coy observations. In the process, it proves only that keen insights into the human condition aren’t exactly his (or, perhaps, Dijan’s) strong suit.
Elle (French for “her”) stars Isabelle Huppert as Michéle, whose moans we hear before we see her face in the first scene, which depicts her rape at the hands of a ski-masked intruder from the point of view of her cat. That makes the film sound dark and violent, yet the scene is imbued with all the menace of a Brinks home security commercial. The rapist is wearing the same goofy ski mask and it’s over just as quickly. And did she… actually like it? We’re left to wonder if it was a dream sequence, or just some elaborate role play between Michele and one of her beaus.