Elle Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Rated R. Opens Friday at Regal Village Square.
At nearly 80 years old, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is still a provocateur, and Elle, his first feature in a decade (as well as his first movie in French), pushes the audience's buttons from its opening scene, which shows the final moments of a brutal rape committed by a masked man against Michele Leblanc (Golden Globe winner Isabelle Huppert) in her upscale home. After her attacker flees, Michele efficiently cleans up her living room, takes a bath and goes about her day, but she's far from unaffected by the experience. As the movie goes on, Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (working from a novel by Philippe Dijan) explore how Michele derives power from dark experiences, and the way she turns her hunt for her attacker into a game in which it's not quite clear who is hunting whom.
While Verhoeven went for big shocks in his most famous Hollywood movies (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, RoboCop), Elle is more grounded in its outrageousness, thanks to Huppert's effectively modulated performance. Although Michele's actions may be surprising and sometimes baffling, Huppert gives her a sort of mischievous energy that suggests she knows more than she's letting on, and that despite the horrors she's experienced (including some major childhood trauma that's eventually revealed), she remains confident and in control. The more she pushes boundaries, the more she challenges the assumptions of the men around her, from her attacker to her ex-husband to the almost entirely male staff at the video-game company she runs (not coincidentally part of a male-dominated industry).
As Michele's one-upmanship with her attacker (who's identified about halfway through the movie) escalates, eventually the movie hits a narrative dead end, when all the shocking developments have to come together in a satisfying and coherent way. Michele herself remains compelling to the end, but the plot dynamics aren't quite as strong, and the movie loses steam on the way to its sort of anticlimactic conclusion. Still, Verhoeven delivers a fascinating and unexpected character study, balancing playful titillation with serious questions that linger long after the final inscrutable moment.