Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ is cuttingly clever

Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ is cuttingly clever

I can think of a few reasons “Elle” has been getting raves and awards from movie critics. For one thing, it has a splendid performance by Isabelle Huppert.

It is exceedingly clever, at times lacerating. The film’s full of dialogue that draws blood.

And it is proof that 78-year-old Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, the man behind “Basic Instinct” and “RoboCop” and “Showgirls,” is still a naughty boy. A very naughty boy indeed.

Although I have enjoyed and sometimes championed Verhoeven’s movies, being naughty is not enough to make “Elle” a great movie. It’s provocative, and Huppert is indeed fantastic, but I’m not convinced.

The provocations begin with the opening scene. Michele, played by Huppert, has just been raped by a masked intruder in her comfortable home. We watch her clean up after the crime, but she doesn’t seem to make a huge deal out of it, nor tell anyone for a while.

When she does tell some friends over dinner, the news barely makes a pause in the pouring of champagne. The friends are disconcerted, but Michelle herself seems so casual about reporting the event that they don’t know how to react.

Much of the film, adapted from a novel by Philippe Djian, is a comedy. This seems hard to square with the act of sexual violence that begins the story, but it’s part of Verhoeven’s plan to make us uncomfortable. And that we are.

Even though I don’t think “Elle” pulls off its dangerous balance of tones, I acknowledge how animated and sneaky it is. Verhoeven confidently steers the movie in the direction of farce (much of which involves Michele’s exasperating family) and the horror film (something from Michele’s childhood that comes back periodically to annoy her, complete with creepy-kid photographs).

Huppert, who was also great in “Things to Come,” which opened here last week, brings her poker-faced style to an enigmatic character. Michele is not a simple woman, and she’s not always easy to root for.

Verhoeven has said he was going to make the film in English, but couldn’t find a bankable actress willing to take on the story’s bizarre subject matter. So it’s in French and it’s got Huppert, whose career proves she’ll try just about anything. That turns out to be the best casting Verhoeven could’ve hoped for.

“Elle” (2.5 stars)

Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who rebounds from a rape in very unexpected ways. Director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) is a provocateur to the end, and this film does not pull off the shifts in tone it wants to make. But Huppert is great, and it’s a very clever movie. In French, with English subtitles.

Rating: R, for violence, nudity, subject matter

Showing: Seven Gables

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