Dutch enfant terrible Paul Verhoeven has delivered a post-feminist cluster bomb

David G. Hughes on Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ (2016)

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has consistently been twenty years ahead of the curve. Robocop (1987) was accused of being a crude example of lowest common denominator Reaganite cinema before its adoration as a satirical masterpiece and the subsequently sterilised remake, made precisely in the fashion of the accusation pointed at the original. Showgirls (1997) was lambasted for misogyny and exploitative sexism before it started getting screened on University campuses as a feminist riposte. Starship Troopers (1997) was regarded as a fascistic celebration of military violence before its rightful reputation as a camp, anti-fascist parody became the consensus. It seems no one wants to be on the wrong side of history this time around, for Elle, Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, has been on the receiving end of abundant critical praise not twenty years later, but on pre-release! A novel situation for the Dutchman I’m sure.

One must regard this treatment suspect, not least as Verhoeven remains one of cinema’s last true provocateurs, the moral stun grenade of the screen, a descendent of Buñuel and Pasolini and an ally of von Trier and Haneke. If his film can be received with open arms by the mainstream press, with very little moral indignation despite every critic’s blasé insistence that the film is self-evidently ‘controversial,’ what does this say of the films staying power? This isn’t, after all, his best film, but it has certainly been received as such.

If you are aware of the director’s reputation and the films subject matter, rather predictably the film opens to a scene of rape, as if such an introduction is the certifiable way to garner a ‘controversial’ reputation. “What an opening!” the unsuspecting amongst us may say. Fortunately, Verhoeven is no hack or amateur, and rather than divulge in the shock, horror and violence of it, he shoots the scene with such emotional detachment as to normalise the event, to pacify its potential for cheap shock. We do not know the victim in question, nor the identity of the attacker, we look on with the same indifference as the unsuspecting household cat nonchalantly observing the act (message: choose a dog as your household pet). How abhorrent, we may say, to identify with a cat, to not maximise the horror with close-ups and screeching music in an attempt to communicate the message: ‘Rape is wrong.’ No fan of literalness or simplicity, Verhoeven provokes to question whether moral earnestness does not always chime with humanity’s inherent moral complexity, that any worn moral lecture runs the risk of fetishising the attack and, instead, we are forced to consider societal mollification to sexual violence, how this is the norm under the patriarchy, how unsexy this is. This is a startling opening to what could otherwise have been the equivalent of a ‘No Means No’ ad screened before the commencement of the film. After concluding his assault, the attacker walks away, leaving Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) to brush up the broken ornaments destroyed in the struggle, clean herself up, take a shower and return to life as usual when her son comes to visit.

Only after the act do we get to know Michèle, who is herself detached, a ruthless business owner of a Parisian video game company, divorced, unresponsive to her insipid son and vehement to his dastardly girlfriend. When she does finally reveal the attack to friends, it is told in pre-meal conversation at a nice restaurant as if she were making small-talk – “I suppose I was raped,” she says with awkward indifference. Verhoeven dares us to insinuate that Michèle is complicit in her attack, not only by making her actions morally dubious but also in her profession which propagates images of sexual violence. Only a few hours after the attack is Michèle ordering her employees to make the scenes of violence in their video game suggestive of sexual assault so as to fetishise it. More subtly, we see Métal hurlant posters as home decor – the erotic fantasy comic book. It is often little more than simplistic moralising to suggest that we are desensitised to violence; German director Michael Haneke is a point of reference in this regard, this statement being irksomely advocated in his Funny Games films, thereby making him a strange bedfellow with conservative dullard’s who decry the moral collapse of society and ask us to, Oh God please, think of the children. But whereas Haneke chooses sinister detachment to beat us over the head with his moral and intellectual grandstanding, Verhoeven is right alongside us, just as complicit and going for laughs of the darkest kind. ‘Elle’ has an aversion to moral absolutism, and to suggest as much does it a disservice. This is as murky as it comes, and it is the film’s amoral observation and faint insinuations that stimulate real provocation.

Verhoeven’s admiration for the character begins to shine as the film progresses. We know the rape has affected her (of course it would), but she refuses to give voice to the fall-out, and no law is involved. Verhoeven does not dare to presume a simple psychology for women, whereby they merely become hysterical and recruit the help of men to resolve their problem and restore order – a sexist proposition. Her strength of character and tenacity in the face of her attack place her as a source of regard, someone who refuses to become a victim or submit to any moral preconception. This is the morally murky area Verhoeven best operates in; the film damns society’s absolute lack of ability to account for any degree of unconventional encounter that does not prescribe to established Christian-societal notions, be it liberal or conservative. In the rituals of the bourgeoisie and their emotional repression does Verhoeven find much to laugh at, discovering many moments of dark comedy in the illusion of civilisation and refinement, whereby sexual transgression and desire remains hidden in the basement. It is no coincidence that acts of horrific violence occur almost every time classical music plays within the homes of these middle-class bankers, businessmen and writers.

At every turn, the characters perform the opposite action to what society prescribes. I’d like to say this makes the film unpredictable, but this is not the case. The identity of the attacker and the plot trajectory are morally subversive but narratively predictable when situated within the director’s tradition. As such, Elle is a film that fails to push the boundaries of its director’s sensibilities, even if it does admirably and effectively push the preconceptions of those who watch. In this way, the film, rather ironically, feels safe. Luckily, Verhoeven’s safe is everyone else’s exception, and if we can be sure of anything, it is of the films detest for the bourgeoisie It is hypocritical moral grandstanding that Verhoeven is most repulsed by, and in his cinematic reflections we are shown where we flounder, exposed to our double standards, shown the darker heart within.

Elle is a post-feminist cluster bomb intended to blow holes in common-place preconceptions. What an irony that the film was exposed to us members of the press in the most bourgeois of environs—a luxury hotel, where well-to-do middle-class men and women were engaging in orgies of decadent expense in the lobby bar. The irony had not eluded me; coming out of the screening room of this excellent black comedy, as critics went on to their post-screening dinners and wine receptions, the film was being vocally revered, but not as the incendiary anti-bourgeois moral mind fuck this critic felt it to be, but as a generic ‘whodunit.’ Perhaps the film didn’t make the point sufficiently enough, maybe Verhoeven had lost his edge and finally submitted to the vanilla intelligentsia, or perhaps such discussion was simply too distasteful, an inconvenient interruption to an otherwise pleasant night. I could see the double standard Verhoeven’s film alludes to before me and it was thoroughly disconcerting.

Release: 10 March 2017

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.