Isabelle Huppert has commanding screen presence. She exudes intelligence, and seems ambivalent about everyone around her. The effect is not unlike a predator who is about to deliver a fatal blow. She is a good fit for Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who worked in the Hollywood system for about a decade, only to return to Europe. His work is always challenging and wicked, except for maybe Showgirls, as if his films include jokes only he will get. The psychological thriller Elle is their first collaboration, one that unfortunately mistakes a misanthropic attitude for drama.
Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a Parisian video game developer. Her company is a boy’s club, mostly, but her steely demeanor helps her maintain control over her employees. The catalyst of the film happens in flashback: at home one evening, a man in a black ski mask breaks into Michèle’s home and rapes her. She does not react in a normal way: she is intrigued by her attacker, not pressing charges against him, and instead attempts figure out his identity for herself. Suspects include her employees – they made a computer program that assaults her in effigy – and her small circle of friends. Once she figures out his identity, the affair between her and her rapist grows increasingly creepy and erotic – in ways neither quite anticipated.
Empowered women and their indifference to men have been hallmarks of Verhoeven’s work. Basic Instinct took the femme fatale trope to new heights, while the World War 2 thriller Black Book is about a Jewish resistance fighter who seduces – and fall in love with – a Nazi officer. These films are about how human impulses get in the way clear moral lines, and Elle is no different. There are many secondary characters in the film, and yet Huppert dominates every scene she is in. Her striking face betrays little emotion, and her behavior suggests triumph in spite of her assault. This film does not explore female empowerment, exactly, since it is more about surfaces than Michèle’s inner life. Her reckless flirtations with her rapist are the stuff of fetishes. Other scenes, such as her disgust with her son and colleagues, are meant as a rebuke of maternal nature. Verhoeven and his screenwriter suggest that society would tolerate Michèle if she were a man. This might be true, although it is not interesting or even transgressive. It is merely reactionary.
Elle is a remote film, one that maintains an icy distance from its characters. Huppert is crucial to that success, although filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Claire Denis use her to greater effect. The Piano Teacher, White Material, and others take the Huppert persona as a jumping point for broader themes. Elle, on the other hand, is about nothing more than the perversions of its antagonist. “Psychological thriller” is a misnomer to its true goals, since the term suggests depth. A truly provocative, subversive film understands the norms it upends, and what that means. But as an unsolved equation, Elle goes through the motions without a plan or a point. If other Huppert heroines could watch Elle, they would dismiss it as false after the second fantasy sequence, then leave the theater soon afterward.