‘Elle’
Director:
Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

The director of “Showgirls” doing a drama about rape — it might not sound like a good idea. But Paul Verhoeven is a tricky one. If you understand, as we do, that the Dutch provocateur’s Hollywood hits — including “RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct” and “Starship Troopers” — are savage, sarcastic, merciless satires in the guise of blockbuster junk (yes, even “Showgirls”), you know he’s … well, maybe “perfect person for the job” isn’t the ideal wording here. Verhoeven’s first proper film in a full decade, “Elle” finds him picking up where he left off, continuing a career-long obsession with rolling around in the muck, emerging, dirty and giddy, with ugly truths. He mimics a different kind of movie this time: “Elle” looks like a tasteful, respectable French character study, the kind your mom might enjoy. But it might be the most messed-up film he’s ever made.

It doesn’t mess around: Our introduction to Isabelle Huppert’s Michele, the fearsome lord of a video game company, comes as she’s sexually assaulted by a masked stranger. When it’s over, she picks herself up, sweeps up the broken window glass and calmly calls for an order of sushi. It’s the first of many “That’s kind of funny, I guess?” moments in a film that isn’t exactly a comedy but is partly one. The fall-out from Michele’s tragedy doesn’t go as expected. Life goes on, sort of, except when memories, even violent fantasies of her bashing in her assailant’s skull, crop up at random moments, shattering her attempts to live a placid — although often combative — life. Still, Michele can’t help but try to track down her rapist, and when she does her actions always teeter on the edge of being either offensive or not how we expect victims to act.

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“Elle” isn’t just a Paul Verhoeven film; it’s more like a Paul Verhoeven-Isabelle Huppert duet. (Even considering he's mostly worked in Holland and America, it's still amazing they've never worked together. They're a perfect pair of party-crashers.) No other filmmaker could do what he does here, and it’s impossible to imagine an actress who isn’t Huppert embodying someone with so many strange and contradictory synapses firing. Huppert is an actress who can seem comfortable in the most damaged skin, and her Michele glides through a film that calls on her to think and do the unimaginable. We struggle to figure out what she’s thinking, not because the screenplay is a shambles, but because the film resists, at every turn, our desire to box her in, to reduce her to someone we can predict like a ticking clock.

Typically, Verhoeven has indulged in excesses: the gore of “RoboCop” and “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers”; the medieval grime and muck of “Flesh+Blood”; the sex of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” This is a man who, in “Turkish Delight,” had his sociopathic stud hero surreptitiously scissor off a random hook-up’s bush then wear the clump like a mustache. “Elle” looks like he’s holding back: Watched without sound or subtitles, it could almost pass for a French export starring Juliette Binoche or Audrey Tautou.

But if Verhoeven imitates the style to a T, he delights in puncturing it, like a bratty boy relentlessly poking a cat. “Elle” is excessive in its own way, delighting — like its traumatized yet plucky hero — in undermining the politeness of upper-middle-class society. We can’t defend all of it, and maybe not even Verhoeven would, and he can never pass up a sick joke in the least tasteful of places. (This is the rare film where we wouldn’t dare spoil the opening shot, which sets the tone all too perfectly.) Watching it is like traipsing through a tony part of Paris strewn with landmines. It’s great to have one of cinema’s great saboteurs back, and still at the height of his game.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge