Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape—the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat—and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of "Elle" is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. "Elle" is a high-wire act without a net.
Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning), "Elle" is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Barbara Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.
The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to DO to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.
Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of "Elle" by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on who probably did it. Verhoeven does not “bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationship, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." "Elle" is a dissertation on power dynamics.