The Cannes Film Festival saved the best for last: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is an ingenuously constructed drama that roots all of its complexities in matters of character. Isabelle Huppert’s Michéle is a woman gradually revealed in her interactions with others, and in the details she divulges about herself. When she was only 10 years old, she was party to the brutal mass murder committed by her Christian fundamentalist father, a tragedy immortalized in a documentary, The Accused Will Rise, that occasionally airs on French television in the film. The reputation of Michéle’s family has consequently suffered, but the woman’s own self-confidence hasn’t wavered, leading to her considerable success as CEO of an erotic video-game company.
Elle’s opening moments subject Michéle to another man’s act of violence, one she just as resolutely refuses to let define her. This time it’s a brutal assault and rape, in broad daylight, by a masked intruder. Michéle doesn’t go to the police, citing some long-ago incident involving her father’s crime, but when the assailant continues to intrude on her life, texting her phone and paying discreet visits to her apartment while she’s at work, she contemplates revenge. First, Michéle merely daydreams of retaliation; later, she purchases some pepper spray and convinces a friend to take her to a shooting range. Verhoeven never shies away from depicting Michéle’s amusement at her own preparatory measures, and while the generally light, even humorous, tone of this rape-revenge thriller is sure to be controversial, it suits the complex psychology the director commits himself to exploring.
The film’s comedic moments are often founded on a rejection of pity—the emotion which Michéle recognizes could pose the greatest threat to her agency. Verhoeven likewise works against offering any easy moral interpretation of his film: Elle confronts difficult ideas about violence and sexuality, but filters them not through any commonly accepted social doctrine, but rather through the psychological nuances of its exceptionally defined central character. A lot of this is thanks to Huppert, who finds a convincing coherence to occupy at the chaotic intersection of victim and aggressor which David Birke’s screenplay has assigned to her. Verhoeven, for his part, scales back the kinds of genre gestures he’s engaged with in his similarly themed films, particularly 1992’s Basic Instinct.
“Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all,” Michéle explains to her friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), and if there’s ever been a thesis for Verhoeven’s filmography it’s this one. But Elle isn’t merely provocation for its own sake; the filmmakers’ commitment to Michéle’s less than expected set of reactions to her rape, and their deft ability to develop the intricate logic behind those actions and responses, represent a pointed show of individualism. Michéle refuses to become a victim for fear of being stripped of her own defining sense of self, just as Verhoeven’s maverick Elle insists on realizing its central character through bold eccentricities as a means of giving specific experience to a dehumanizing act.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.