A Paul Verhoeven film, like any other hardcore drug, hits with unforgiving force and leaves in quite an unexpected puddle. It’s the unsafe chemical hit you had no idea you needed.
Admittedly, “Elle” is my first Verhoeven film. Yes, I have seen the helicopter pool lap dance of “Showgirls” and the occasional clip of “RoboCop” during a creative history course, but until this screening any bit of purity I had left in my widdle ol’ mind was bleached clean. Verhoeven straps his audience into the genre of chaotic fun; exploitation. Stephen King said an interesting thing regarding horror cinema that felt relevant after walking out. He offered three levels of affecting the audience, the first of which being – horrify. The reason a “Gone Girl” or “The Gift” works so well is that it rings of truth. There’s a personification to its horror, whether it be the hatred of your partner, the baggage you carry when you tear someone’s life apart for ego, or just ‘cause. It’s the uncanny nature that makes it work, mixed in with dark humor to keep it grounded.
The next two levels he discussed (where I believe a film like Elle fits in nicely), is terror meets the grotesque. While I never felt an uncanny horror in the journey of Michelle (Isabelle Huppert), a women seeking her rapist while trying to maintain the order in her life, Verhoeven does an effective task using terror and absurdity to play up his audience’s reaction. Forcing them into the perspective of someone who, like a captain gearing towards an iceberg, is willing to hold control if it means her fall is just as powerful, and your enjoyment depends on whether you’re willing to take that journey.
It’s a film of both control and power, exploiting the dynamics of sex, order of one’s life and human interaction for every morbid chuckle it’s worth. In doing this, Verhoeven structures the film less like a tight, focused narrative, and more along the lines of an elongated Netflix series, using his lead Michelle as a framework for the film’s themes, backstory lore and the multitude of characters she interacts with. In one way this is a pacing issue for those wanting that cat-and-mouse narrative centre-stage, as Elle strays off in idle direction on occasion for character development or establishment of an idea, but on the other hand it heightens the paranoia we should feel for these characters, all the while guessing who did the disastrous deed. I do wish Verhoeven put more focus on that cat-and-mouse structure, maintaining that predatory power-play throughout with empathetic motivations. I believe this would have given audiences more to hang onto as well as more incentives for rewatches, but for a single viewing, perhaps even a second, Verhoeven offers enough in melancholic visuals, editing and dark humor to guarantee his movie has a strong, impactful first impression.
Don’t take the Verhoeven pill lightly, darlings. Surround yourself with a good bunch of mates because you’ll be leaving wanting to discuss your wicked trip.
Paul Verhoeven’s second feature film in the ‘Official Competition’ at the Cannes International Film Festival. The first one was Basic Instinct (1992). Both films are thrillers.