An exceedingly measured, deliberate, precise “revenge thriller”, as I’d suppose you’d call it, from Paul Verhoeven. There’s nothing easy about this film. It’s difficult to have an easy reaction or judgement when there’s so much complicated and nuanced story and presentation here to mull over. It can’t have been easy for Verhoeven to shoot for the first time in France, with a crew he’d never worked with before, in a language he’d never worked before in, but in gaining Isabelle Huppert as the lead actress, it was surely worth it. So too is persevering through the film, difficult as it is at times, worth it – not just for Huppert’s brilliant performance, but for the complicated, very individual take on revenge and sexual politics.
Rape revenge thrillers are an easy sort of film to make insensitively or exploitatively, but for all the shocking provocateur nature of Verhoeven’s style, there’s clearly a complicated, precise take on gender politics here. The interplay between masculine aggression, hypersexuality, and malevolence isn’t channelled purely through men here. Video games, a culture that’s been hypermasculine for some time, are the main business in the film, and it’s Huppert’s protagonist, the titular Elle, that directs a video game company, totally pushing the boundaries, the exploitation, the shocking, supposedly titillating violence and sexuality in creating and marketing a game presumably mainly to men.
Elle seems to, if not subvert, then at least channel and direct that sort of potentially dangerous or at least untoward “masculine” desire for aggressive fulfilment of sexual and violent fantasies through that medium. The ending of the film could be read in a very similar way, I feel. Elle is remarkable skilled at channelling and directing the impulses of those around her. She addresses not only the problems in her own life, but the problems of those close to her as well, by manipulating and orchestrating events and interactions so as to channel the most base and vile desires of those in her life to productive purposes.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence how what is ostensibly the main plot of the film – the most dramatic, frightening, central story – is subsumed by the most derivative, low-stakes, and comic. Not only does Elle reframe and reposition her own role as a victim through her recurrent dreams and visions of the sexual assault inflicted upon her, she ends up reframing and repositioning the narrative the world (not to mention her rapist) would assign her as well.
Elle refuses to play the role assigned to her (both in childhood and adulthood), and instead manipulates others to roles she assigns for them, which tends to end up fairly well. A complicated character, played extraordinary well, in a complicated film. I give it four glasses of wine, and a “Spartacus of the robo-dogs”.