Isabelle Huppert is an actress who has never shunned risk, and in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” she dares us to sympathize with her character, Michele Leblanc, for even an instant, despite the fact that the film begins with a sequence that shows her being raped by a masked intruder as her cat—and the rest of us—watch intently. After the man leaves Michele’s coolly elegant sitting room, she cleans up the broken bric-a-brac from the floor, tosses out her soiled dress and, in a shot with a scarlet accent, bathes. She will then have herself checked for STDs, hire a man to change the locks, and then go off to dinner with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny) and the latter’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel), matter-of-factly informing them of what had happened before suggesting that they order their entrees.
One might think that Michele is suffering trauma, but her icily pragmatic demeanor is simply who she is. An erstwhile publisher, she’s the co-founder (with Anna) of a company specializing in super-violent video games, and she treats the staff—particularly smarmy photographer Kurt (Lucas Prisor)—with such smug disdain that they respond by posting nastily doctored clips from their work, with her face superimposed on the abused victim, online. (She’ll respond by assigning Kevin, a young staffer played by Arthur Mazet who’s infatuated with her, to hack into his colleagues’ computer files to ferret out the perpetrator.) On the side she’s having a loveless affair with Robert, a tidbit she’s saving up to employ against him with his wife whenever it’s useful. (Indeed, her relationship with Anna is a particularly complex one, as the film’s coda will reveal.)
Other aspects of Michele’s life disclose more of her cynical, controlling character. She’s supportive of her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet)—a young man with a troubled past—for example, but contemptuous of his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz), whom she sees as a manipulative predator (too much like herself, perhaps). She’s friendly toward Rebecca (Virginie Efira), the pious young woman who lives across the way, but happily aims to seduce her husband Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). And her own childhood was marred forever by her father, a notorious mass murderer in whose grisly crime she was, at least in the public mind, implicated. That explains, in part, her venomous relationship with her mother Irene (Judith Magre), whose dalliance with a young hanger-on (Raphael Lenglet) she dismisses as absurd.
“Elle” is Verhoeven’s first feature after a ten-year hiatus, and he and Huppert obviously relish the intricacies of the lurid plot hatched by novelist Phillip Djian (originally titled “Oh…”) and adapted with finesse by David Birke. Ultimately it’s a revenge tale—Michele is not the sort of person who will suffer victimization without reprisal, and by the close of the picture she has dealt with everyone that has done her wrong. But the means by which she secures her ends are twisty, and the whole film is shot through with humor of a most mordant sort; you laugh, but there’s always a taste of bitterness that goes along with it as you feel yourself becoming as merciless as Michele herself. To be sure, there is some slight mitigation of tone at the end, not only in scenes that draw attention to female camaraderie even in the face of Michele’s manipulations but in the positive effect her schemes have had on her relationship with both her son and Josie, despite the revelation that the baby cannot be Vincent’s in a hospital sequence that cannily undercuts the sentimentality such giving-birth scenes always take on even in supposedly gnarly movies.
Presiding over it all, like a stern goddess, is Huppert, a model of hauteur who never condescends to apologize for even the most horrendous acts. Whether nonchalantly backing into her milquetoast ex-husband’s car (and then denying responsibility) or situating a strategically-placed toothpick in a canapé intended for his new girlfriend, whether snorting over her mother’s plans to remarry or tossing the elderly woman’s lover out on the street, whether seducing a man before his wife’s eyes or humiliating him sexually, the actress conveys the character’s combination of calculation, lust, and ingrained bitterness with gestures as modest as the flick of an eyebrow or a slight hint of smile. This is a woman of supreme self-confidence about bending everyone to her will, even when she seems to be defenseless. The rest of the cast do what the script demands with gusto, but all of their characters are ultimately pawns in the games Michele plays, often as a snippet of Mozart plays in the background, and Huppert makes that absolutely clear.
“Elle” is obviously a game itself, one in which Verhoeven, making a stunning comeback, and Huppert toy with the audience like expert puppeteers. Their work is abetted by Stephane Fontaine’s luscious camerawork, Laurent Ott’s elegant production design, and Anne Dudley’s sensually suspenseful score. The result is an intoxicating blend of sex, mystery, and violence about an indelible character you’ll find it difficult to forget—but would probably prefer never to meet in real life.