The elle in "Elle" refers to Michèle Leblanc, a divorced, middle-aged mother, a ruthless CEO and the disgraced daughter of a convicted mass murderer. We know none of these things about her, however, in the opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's brilliantly booby-trapped new thriller, which confronts us — sans warning or context — with the sight of Michèle being raped by a black-masked intruder on the floor of her Paris home.
The only other witness to this vicious assault is Michèle's cat, whose bemused perspective offers an early hint about this movie's sleek, feline inscrutability. Adapted from Philippe Djian's novel "Oh … " into a screenplay of sinuous cunning by David Birke, "Elle" is a gripping whodunit, a tour de force of psychological suspense and a wickedly droll comedy of manners.
It is also a barbed, bracing reminder of how appalling ordinary people can be. You may be startled and horrified by what you see and hear, but the movie's knowing sensibility seems to exist well beyond shock or outrage.
The fact that the film gets Michèle's assault out of the way early and abruptly, as though dispensing with preliminaries, is a sign of its curious integrity. Without glossing over the agony of what Michèle endures, Verhoeven refuses to turn the spectacle of a woman's violation into a narrative payoff. Notably, he also subverts the idea that this violation will be the most defining or interesting thing about her.
Really, the most interesting thing about Michèle is that she's played by Isabelle Huppert, whose reputation as one of the world's foremost screen performers is more than upheld, and possibly even improved, by her masterful work here. The critic J. Hoberman once noted that, as an actress, Huppert "doesn't radiate feelings so much as she absorbs them," and in "Elle," she proves that point with an almost pointillistic level of detail.
This is hardly the first time Huppert has proved willing to wander down the more disturbing avenues of human behavior — most famously in "The Piano Teacher" (2001), Michael Haneke's icy study of sadomasochism. But never before have we seen her breathtaking poise, scabrous wit and brazen sense of daring so rivetingly intertwined.
That speaks very much to one of the movie's key points, which is that not every woman reacts to an ordeal of this nature as the world expects her to. We register the logical emotions of fear, anger and desire for revenge playing out in the lines of Michèle's face, to be sure. But we are also invited to savor the exquisite naughtiness with which she seems to slip between the roles of predator and victim as she considers how best to deal with her attacker — who, like Verhoeven himself, is not above returning to the scene of the crime.
Above all, we're struck by how calm she seems as, mere minutes after the attack, she takes a bath, orders some sushi and resumes her daily routine. Life goes on, after all, and Michèle is a busy woman. A matriarch, an entrepreneur and a much-coveted object of desire, she is the central hub from which her friends, colleagues, neighbors and family members radiate outward like spokes, each one seeming to inhabit a different genre.
Michèle's difficulties with her feckless son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant, mean-tempered girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), as well as her arguments with her aging lothariette of a mother (Judith Magre), at times suggest scenes from a grotesque family sitcom (call it "Développement Arrêté"). Meanwhile, a sleek boardroom thriller unfolds at the software company that Michèle runs with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), overseeing an often-hostile, almost all-male staff tasked with churning out violent, misogynist fantasies in the form of video games.
In her personal life, Michèle enjoys — no, tolerates — a casual affair with Anna's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), while remaining on friendly terms with her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), a novelist who has recently begun dating a much younger yoga instructor. But Michèle's attention is particularly magnetized by her neighbor, Patrick (comedian Laurent Lafitte, cast decisively against type), who draws her — or does she draw him? — into the sort of dangerous liaison that makes "Fifty Shades of Grey" look like a vanilla sundae.
One of the movie's more provocative arguments is that Michèle's rape doesn't cause her to suddenly become squeamish about sex — or violence, for that matter. If anything, the experience — which pales in comparison with the horrors she witnessed as a child — has only heightened her willingness to turn these traditionally male-employed weapons to her advantage.
You could call "Elle" a rape-revenge thriller, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. But that description misses the sneaky, subversive wit that pierces every scene of this movie like a toothpick in a canapé. And it misses some of the crucial alternate targets of the movie's counter-assault, including feminism, patriarchy, organized religion and, inevitably, the delicate sensibilities of the audience.
A genre-hopping maestro who delights in blurring the lines between high culture and low, Verhoeven is clearly playing with fire here, and not for the first time. Michèle is the latest in a long line of the director's heroines and anti-heroines — including the various femmes fatales of "Basic Instinct" (1992), "Showgirls" (1995) and "Black Book" (2006), his previous film before this one — who are allowed to wield their sexuality with the kind of brazen, ruthless self-assurance rarely accorded women on American screens.
"Elle," as it happens, was originally meant to be set in the U.S., but as Verhoeven has said in interviews, every American actress he courted turned up her nose at the part. Whether or not Huppert's willingness reinforces assumptions about American prudery and French perversity, one could scarcely have hoped for a more accomplished or satisfying outcome.
There is a whisper of satire in the way the Dutch-born Verhoeven (who learned French before the shoot) appropriates the literate, luxuriant and sexually liberated style so often associated with French cinema, but his formal mimicry is impeccable nonetheless. ("Elle," which premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival, will represent France in the Academy Awards race for foreign-language movie.)
Whether Verhoeven's female characters are misogynist constructs or avatars of empowerment is a topic worthy of continual debate and reappraisal — something that "Elle," despite its relatively warm reception so far, is unlikely to change. (My own opinion of the matter is shaped by the fact that Michèle is merely one of several strong-minded women united here by the foolish, weak-willed men in their lives; if "Elle" is misogynist, then so is "All About Eve.")
But if this impossible, indecently entertaining movie tips the discussion at all, it may be due to the sheer force of personality and artistic will exerted by its leading lady, to the point where the words "a film by Paul Verhoeven" start to seem both deceptive and inadequate. By the end, vengeance may belong to Michèle Leblanc, but you emerge from "Elle" struggling for the words to do Isabelle Huppert justice.
MPAA rating: R, for violence including sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, Los Angeles