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.
We slowly come to realize (it takes a good 20 minutes or so before it’s clear) that it wasn’t a dream or an elaborate role play, and Michele actually did get violently raped by an intruder. She seems just as confused by it as we are. Did that really happen? Did she like it? When she finally tells her friends about it, they’re understandably mystified by her blasé attitude. I was raped last Thursday. Anyway, more wine? I suppose this could be a comment on victimhood — people who’ve never experienced it telling you how to feel — or violent crime — the dreamlike banality of evil — but it’s so weirdly delivered that it doesn’t feel like a comment on anything. Even the cat isn’t in the movie enough to feel magical, a la Inside Llewyn Davis. He just feels extraneous, or unexplored. Rather than provoking thought about the nature of rape or victimhood, Elle mostly just makes you think “Jeez, what’s up with Michele?”
Before you can meditate too deeply on that subject, the movie just comes right out and tells us. It turns out, what’s up with Michele is that she’s the daughter of an infamous serial killer, a devout Catholic who 30-some years ago killed 27 neighborhood kids after their parents wouldn’t let him make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. (You nasty, Catholicism). And this, in a nutshell, is my problem with Elle: It asks some provocative questions, like about how a rape victim is supposed to act or feel, but it scarcely gives you any time to ponder them because by the time you’ve figured out what’s actually going on, it’s already given you an answer. And usually a hare-brained answer — too outlandish to be believable and yet not played for laughs. Like lots of foreign comedy that doesn’t quite translate, Elle evokes that strange mix of absurdism and cliché, stylized way past the point where it can offer any meaningful commentary. It rides that line between dumb and macabre, like my Italian grandmother’s velvet paintings of crying clowns.
The film follows brassy, horny Michele as she searches for her rapist while dealing with her Peugot cloud of dysfunctional family members and embonered beaus — her mom, who’s playing sugar mama to a gold-digging younger man; her son, a dopey Scumbag Steve type playing baby daddy to a hectoring girlfriend; her ex husband, a pompous novelist banging a Bikram instructor; her best friend, whose husband she’s banging; her hot neighbor, who she dreams of banging, despite his devout Catholic Stepford Wife; and eventually her rapist, with whom she forms an odd relationship (naughtiness! daddy issues!). The Catholicism stuff feels more pathological than insightful, like they’ve just gotten so used to criticizing it every 10 minutes that they’ve forgotten why. And with sex at the root of every subplot, Elle also betrays that Philip Roth-esque, literary chauvinist’s tendency to filter every epiphany through your own erection. Yeah, but in Elle, the penis is a vagina! That’s a twist, I suppose, but not much of one.
Elle offers just enough tweaks on its trope-y characters (horny mom, dopey son, pretentious ex, etc.) to keep them interesting. Michele works as a video game developer, for example, which allows for numerous scenes where she lectures her team of programmers on how to best depict demon rape to create the optimal “boner moment” for the horny gamer. Elle is well acted, especially by Huppert, and intermittently funny enough to keep you engaged, but a lot of its provocativeness relies on titillation. It’s compelling enough in a what-will-they-do-next kind of a way, but unless you’re caught up in it feeling “naughty,” it doesn’t have much to say.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.