Paul Verhoeven – he of Total Recall, Basic Instinct and, of course, Showgirls – is back with Elle, an audacious, genre-bending bang, conjuring forth a blackly comic masterpiece that contains enough material to make about ten films – all of which would almost certainly be excellent. We begin with a shot of a black cat purring and watching on with total indifference as its owner suffers a brutal sexual assault before being left, moaning and bleeding, on the hard wood of her dining room floor. And yes, this is a comedy – or at least partly anyway. It also functions equally well as an erotically-charged psychological thriller and/or dysfunctional family drama, as Verhoeven is constantly adding extra elements to the mix, pulling your expectations this way and that without ever threatening to lose his way.
The victim of this grimly realistic attack is Michèle Leblanc (the brilliant and deservedly Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert), a no-nonsense co-owner of a successful video game company who responds to her ordeal with a peculiar mix of unnerving detachment and impressive, grin-and-bear-it pragmatism. Within minutes the dustpan and brush has come out, she’s hopped in the bath and ordered herself a takeaway. It’s as though nothing has happened, and when she returns to work the very next day she barely bats an eyelid as she orders a violently familiar cut-scene – a gargantuan, green-skinned hell beast is shown mounting and very graphically killing a nubile young thing with grotesque, tentacular protrusions – to be bloodier. “Make it thick and warm if you can…”
It emerges, before long, that Michèle is no stranger to staring long and hard into the deepest, blackest depths of the abyss. She knows full well that the world is full of horrors, so you’re left with little doubt that she’ll somehow have the last laugh. Good luck predicting the path, though. Instead of obviously scheming away and preparing to turn the tables much of Michèle’s time is spent dealing with the tangled, incestuous mess that is her personal life. Every which way you turn there are back-stabbings, betrayals and affairs, with every brilliantly drawn and perfectly played character – from the penniless writer ex-husband she still holds a candle for to her handsome broker neighbour – hiding something dark and twisted just millimetres below the surface normality.