Paul Verhoeven’s first full length film since 2006’s Black Book see him paired with Isabelle Huppert, a union primed for maximum moral ambiguity. Elle does not disappoint in that regard, but does see Verhoeven dialling down his more lurid impulses, delivering a complex, layered drama inside the body of a thriller.
Huppert is ideally cast as Elle, a woman keeping vast reservoirs of trauma at bay behind a perfectly composed facade. Over the course of the film, the facade is peeled away and we get a glimpse of her inner workings, learn about the events that shaped her, and how the sexual assault that starts the film could leave her angry but not as scarred as one might expect.
Elle’s somewhat blasé response to her assault is just one of several morally thorny ideas that pop up throughout the film, and while Verhoeven still clearly loves to provoke, his control of tone ensures the film’s success. By treating Elle’s assault seriously he’s able to explore her response in the same terms, never giving into melodrama, just observing and letting us form our own opinions.
He also delivers a cracking thriller that builds to a rousing conclusion, contains mysteries that are expertly teased out, and is often very funny. It’s a very entertaining film about a despicable crime, impeccably acted by Huppert, who has the tricky task of being the audience’s focal point while remaining an enigma. If this is Verhoeven mellowing in his old age we should hope for many more of its kind.