At cinemas nationwide now

Arch provocateur Paul Verhoeven returns after a ten-year absence with what may be his most transgressive film yet.  For a man whose previous work includes Showgirls, that’s some going.  Ostensibly a rape revenge drama, and marketed as such; this is a far richer, deeper and troubling film than that.

Isabelle Huppert somehow builds on her superlative work in last year’s Things to Come as the icy, haughty Michèle Leclerc who reacts to a brutal rape in her own home with eerie self-possession.  She cleans up the broken crockery before the blood on her thighs, pours some wine and ordered sushi.  Verhoeven and Huppert challenge the idea that there is some natural or correct way to respond to such a violation.  When a traumatic episode from her distant past is revealed that explains her distaste for the police, it’s a swipe at the practice of victim blaming.

As we learn more about Michèle’s life, Elle grows even denser and more layered.  Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke are bold enough for the psychological thriller to embrace pungent black comedy and dark eroticism as she investigates her attacker and her motivations and desires grow ever more complex and disturbing.

It won’t be a film for everyone.  The difficulty with Elle is that there are some who will watch hoping for a modern slab of grotty exploitation (not an entirely unfair assumption to make of Verhoeven) and be wrong-footed by the sophisticated writing and psychological acuity of the script.  There are also those who may find it too difficult to reconcile the story with the tone and find its feminist aspirations unconvincing.  Once again this could be a case of Verhoeven’s past work not being entirely indicative of Elle‘s qualities.  The catalytic act in question is returned to often, from different viewpoints as Michèle’s recollections and fantasies intermingle; each time intensifying the discomfort.  When the attack isn’t being depicted overtly there are elliptical references; in an aggressively sexual video game her company is developing, and in a queasily Ballardian thigh wound.

Rarely does a film offer quite so much on which to ruminate in the aftermath of a viewing.  It is absolutely stuffed with ideas, plot strands, and themes.  Towering above it all is the riveting presence of Isabelle Huppert, without whom it is doubtful the film would work at all.  It’s a characteristically fearless performance, and it is good to see a movie depicting a mature woman as not only sexually active, but as desirable.  It’s true that there is a deeply unsettling edge to this desire, but this adds to the depth of this profoundly multi-layered character.  As Verhoeven continues to age disgracefully, Elle could well be his crowning achievement.