Few directors have led audiences to more places of complicit discomfort than Paul Verhoeven. Few commercial filmmakers have mastered the art of popcorn subversion like the man who gave us “Basic Instinct,” “The Fourth Man,” “Robocop,” “Black Book,” and, yes, “Showgirls.” Few have so insisted on the power dynamics and inherent emotional fascism of what the rest of the us call love.
So when I tell you that “Elle,” the Dutch-born director’s 16th feature, is possibly his most provocative work to date — his most vexing, outrageous, perverse, and cruel; also the most horrific and, at the most inopportune times, funny — you’ll probably know whether you’re up for the experience or prefer to cower at home. “Elle” opens with a brutal rape. The victim spends the rest of the movie refusing to behave like a victim.
She is Michèle Leblanc, and she is played by Isabelle Huppert in a performance of steely intensity that grows scarier and more awe-inspiring as “Elle” progresses. Rather than phone the police after the home invasion and assault, Michèle takes a bath, orders sushi, arranges for the locks to be changed. The next day she gets tested for STDs and buys a hatchet.
Over the course of the film, we learn details of events in Michèle’s childhood — events both traumatic and notorious — that could explain why she’s wary of the police and why she confronts the world with such chilly, amoral poise. Verhoeven isn’t interested in explanations, though, and he doesn’t care that his heroine isn’t very likable, only that she’s strong. With a longtime friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), Michèle runs a successful video game company, and an early scene has her coolly browbeating a roomful of young male coders into making an action sequence even more phallic and rape-y than it already is.
Could the hooded man in black who broke into her house and attacked her be Kurt (Lucas Prisor), the hostile employee who doesn’t like taking orders from an older woman? Could it be Kevin (Arthur Mazet), the young coder with an obvious crush on her? There are more than enough suspects to go around: Anna’s sardonic lech of a husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), and Ralf (Raphael Lenglet), the gigolo fiancé of Michèle’s mother (Judith Magre), who’s in her 80s and acts like a teenager. Michèle’s seemingly meek ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), and Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), the handsome bond trader across the street with the devout wife (Virginie Efira) and the wandering eyes.
But that’s expecting Verhoeven to follow the predictable paths of a genre — in this case the mystery thriller — when his films have always delighted in bushwhacking their way across our expectations and complacencies. This is a director, remember, who made “Starship Troopers,” a satire of alien-invasion war movies so convincing that even its studio thought it was the real thing. He’s the man who made “Black Book,” a WWII drama where the Resistance fighters were opportunists and a Nazi was the nicest guy in the movie. “Elle” is, ironically, Verhoeven’s least genre-bound work to date, and in its Paris setting and detached view of very dark matters, it feels remarkably like late-period Luis Bunuel — an inquisition into the discreet kink of the bourgeoisie.
Huppert is phenomenal in her most unnerving performance since Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.” Michèle is always in control, even when she appears to invite further abuse, and her sangfroid — the calm reptile eye she turns toward all the men in the movie (even the ones she desires) — drives them crazy with confusion. Her attacker has a twisted narrative in his head that needs to be followed, but what happens when the victim starts writing the script?
Maybe Michèle is a sociopath. Maybe she just grew up with one. That’s one of the puzzles with which Verhoeven teases us. So many of his movies have featured strong, smart, damaged women who visit further damage on lesser mortals, usually men, in a spirit of malice and amusement. They’re survivor’s tales, made with sinew and black humor. “Elle” may be the purest distillation of his worldview yet, and it’s a terrifying thrill.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by David Birke and Harold Manning, based on a novel by Philippe Djian. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 131 minutes. R (violence including sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language). In French, with subtitles.