We begin with a black screen and the sound of a sexual assault in medias res, cut to a cat observing the scene with feline insouciance. For a moment, it seems like Verhoeven is going to sidestep any worries about eroticising rape by keeping it off camera but, oh no, we're going to get the money shot. And the rape will be replayed in flashback. And there will be more rapes.
Isabelle Huppert plays Michelle. She is the woman violently assaulted by a masked man, who looks a little bit like Diabolik, in the opening scene. He escapes and Michelle goes on with her life. She sweeps up the broken glass, soaks herself in a hot bath, as blood blossoms in the bubble bath, and calmly informs her friends over dinner of the assault, downplaying its importance. She doesn't call the cops because - as we find out later - she has a poor history with them, her father being a notorious murderer. Despite this childhood trauma, Michelle has made a good life for herself: she is the wealthy founder of a videogame company with a line in violent sexual fantasy. Her family life is complicated with an ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) dating a yoga instructor, her mother (Judith Magre) dating a toy boy (Raphaël Lenglet), her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) setting up house with his 'psycho' pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz) and a lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who is of course her best friend's husband. A classic French middle class comedy in other words.
Michelle is brilliantly played by Huppert who gives her bitchiness an exoskeleton of ice and the fiery liberated verve of someone who will not back down. So is this perhaps a feminist response to rape? Someone who will be called a survivor, rather than a victim, or perhaps won't be defined by the violation at all? Michelle buys some pepper spray and an axe, learns to shoot a gun and begins her own investigation as to who might be responsible. As a hard-nosed business woman with an infamous history, there are many possible suspects, but the mystery is resolved relatively early on and what follows takes the movie into dangerous territory as Michelle begins to flirt with rape fantasies and an absurd romance develops between victim and attacker, played partly for laughs.
Based on the novel "Oh…" by Philippe Djian, there is much to like about Elle, first and foremost a witty and bold performance from Huppert and the generally seasoned ensemble. Verhoeven is at his most impishly witty, filming with a naturalism which is an Atlantic Ocean away from some of his brasher productions. But ultimately it comes down to the rape comedy tag. We've had Holocaust comedies before with Train du Vie a notable entry, but rape comedies are a rare breed and towards the end Elle itself loses all confidence in its own daring. There is a swift and utterly unconvincing change of mind that leads to a conventional if not clichéd denouement. There are very few emotional consequences, no one really cares about what has happened and the audience are encouraged to react with the same indifference perhaps as the cat that opened the movie. It might be far less easy for rape survivors in the audience to take the whole affair with such Gallic cool.