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Cannes: With ‘Elle,’ Paul Verhoeven is ready for a comeback--and some controversy

French actress Isabelle Huppert and Dutch director Paul Verhoeven arrive for the screening of "Elle" at Cannes.
(Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP/Getty Images )

The movie’s opening may as well arrive with an on-screen statement.

Loud shrieking lends the impression a couple is having sex. But the first sight is a close-up of a cat. Then the camera cuts to the source of the shrieks, and it turns out what sounded like love is actually an assault.

“Paul Verhoeven is baa-aack.”

‎Needling, absurd, campy, sexual, ambitious, kinetic — all those adjectives and a few more apply to Verhoeven. The Dutch-born director has followed one of the more improbable career arcs in modern cinema — from European obscurity to Hollywood heights to industry punch-line (“Showgirls,” anyone?), back to European acclaim. And then, finally, to silence.

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Now, after a 10-year feature-film hiatus‎, the 77-year-old has returned with one of his most provocative and unclassifiable films yet, one that dances between two genres and subverts them both. It is vintage Verhoeven by not being vintage Verhoeven.

“Elle,” which jolted the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered here Saturday, is a hybrid European-style character drama and American-flavored thriller, a Gamergate-themed doozy ‎about trauma, video games, fidelity, family and rape, not necessarily in that order.

Its politically incorrect portrayal of a rape victim is sure to prompt critical essays and set Activist Twitter ablaze, even while the film is likely to delight and even surpass the expectations of those in need of a good Verhoeven fix.

“Is it the second comeback? The third? I’ve lost track,” Verhoeven said playfully.

The director’s French-language movie just had its first screening, and he looked relaxed and ready on this Saturday afternoon as he sipped water in a hotel suite.

Verhoeven has been waiting a long time for this moment, since his taut WWII thriller “Black Book,” one of the most well-received foreign-language movies of 2006, failed to produce a career resurgence. Instead, Verhoeven weathered the doldrums‎ of second-tier Hollywood offers, the Sisyphean stops and starts of a Jesus passion project and a Marvel era that has rendered moot Verhoeven’s brand of R-rated, elegantly original pulp.

He was even willing to go in another direction.

“Somehow early on in Hollywood I was typecast as a thriller and science-fiction guy. I would have done any script someone sent me if it was interesting,” said the director, who has a chatty streak. “If Woody Allen sent me a script for a romantic comedy, I would have done that. But he never did.”

The mind wanders to how “Midnight in Paris‎" might have looked if directed by Verhoeven. But no matter. There is perhaps even more to mentally chew on in the film he did make. “Elle” — the product of a French-Armenian novelist, French-Tunisian producer, American screenwriter and Dutch director — is an international stew of the most captivating sort. (Sony Pictures Classics has acquired U.S. rights to “Elle” and will bring it to theaters later this year.)

>>>READ: Full Cannes Coverage

Isabelle Huppert plays Michele, a successful head of a video company who, in the film’s startling opening scene, is raped in her home by a masked assailant. (The attack recurs several times in flashbacks, with effective variations.) Rather than show understandable scarring or anxiety, Michele responds with a ho-hum equanimity, part of the character’s generally cool irony that makes her so intriguing — and part of the devilishly complex behavior that made Huppert an Oscar front-runner from the moment the screening ended. (The actress has never been nominated.)

As Michele continues to receive text-message threats, the movie dangles the possibility the culprit could be an employee at her video game company, where misogyny abounds. Michele, however, decides not to go to the police, owing at least in part to a past entanglement with law enforcement over her jailed father, whose crimes become apparent over the course of the film (and whose actions traumatized Michelle when she was a child).

Instead, the executive quietly seeks to see if she might unearth the attacker herself.

This movie is about me going to American culture, living in the United States, and coming back out to Europe with an American heritage.

— Paul Verhoeven

But even as “Elle” builds suspense over the rapist’s identity, it explores a larger interpersonal story of a complicated late-40-something executive. The movie layers in Michele’s doe-eyed slacker son and his demanding baby mama, her ex-husband, her devil-may-care mother, her close friend and business partner and the friend’s husband, with whom Michele has been sleeping. Among other characters.

Even though the movie has the beating heart of a thriller, many of its parts have little or nothing to do with the mystery, becoming a larger and more complex story of one woman’s entanglements, an unexpected hybrid.

Much, it should be said, like its director.

“This movie is about me going to American culture, living in the United States, and coming back out to Europe with an American heritage,” he said.

“Elle’s’ borrowing from film cultures on both sides of the pond without every fully being defined by either is the result of a filmmaker who has frequently done the same.

As a 30-something in the 1970s, Verhoeven ‎was making well-regarded literary adaptations in his native Netherlands. Then he arrived in Hollywood, and in the 1980s and 1990s he was a high priest of pop culture with smashes such as “Robocop,” “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct.”

That latter one, with its steamy sexuality that prompted some protests, was merely overture to what was to come. Verhoeven would a few years later become the vicar of camp thanks to “Showgirls"--before reinventing himself once again, in 2006, with “Black Book.”

The return to European productions has been partly by design, he said, and partly by circumstance; he couldn’t get the top-flight scripts he wanted from studios. (Verhoeven continues to live in Los Angeles.)

“Elle” was in fact initially conceived by its producer, the Tunisian-born and Paris-based Said ben Said, as an English-language American movie, which is why the script was written in English by the American screenwriter David Birke, based on Philippe Djian’s French-language novel “Oh…” Verhoeven and Birke made several key changes, including moving the story into the more visual and charged world of gaming.

Yet for all its tight thriller-y structure, the tale retained its European character. Subplots can wander in unexpected directions. Causal explanations are rarely given — how much Michele’s early-childhood trauma is responsible for her unusual approach to being raped, for instance, is left unclear.

“Paul Verhoeven doesn’t try to give explanations,” Huppert told reporters Saturday. “He raises hypotheses.” That, she said, “also makes it easy to deliver a performance,” because “you don’t have to explain things — you just react.”

Meanwhile, though some self-consciously raunchy flourishes do remain, unlike Verhoeven’s Hollywood work, of course famed for its ‎excesses, there is — dare we say it — a sense of restraint. A scene in which Michele and her business partner appear to be taking a Sapphic turn doesn’t go there.

“I actually shot it,” he said of a full sex scene. “But then I watched it in editing and I said ‘too much,’” he laughed. That’s a rare sentiment to hear from the man who opted to film Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs.

(He also said, of “Showgirls.” I think it was badly understood at the time — it was over the top because it was a movie about Las Vegas, which is over the top. But there probably were too many naked breasts.” Yes, this is really Paul Verhoeven speaking.)

The director hasn’t been totally on hiatus. He has struggled for years to crack a Jesus story that will contain some of the ambivalence he has personally toward religion (that subtext is in this film too), and has of late been working on an epic project about the French Resistance during WWII which he hopes to get off the ground.

Three years ago, he also made a deliciously fun featurette called “Tricked,” about a blackmailed Dutch businessman, that tried some novel attempts at story creation.

But much of the time, he said, he was eyeing Hollywood movies and then rejecting them--often to his regret.

“I should have made more movies. I shouldn’t have been so critical of the projects coming to me. Why did I not take [an offered] movie that was not so good and then try to change it?,” he said. “I should have made four movies since “Hollow Man” (the 2000 sci-fi film that was a critical dud but a modest commercial success) instead of two. I don’t know where the time went,” he added.

Though Verhoeven has never had any intention of retiring, he says he does have mortality on the brain. “You get older and death looks different. It’s around the corner. When a woman dies in your film and you’re 30, you don’t identify with it. It was all about sexuality, or something else. This movie has a lot of death and it meant more personally.”

“Elle” will be the same in one respect: It will put Verhoeven back in the headlines. The press notes for the film dryly say: “No American actress would take on a part this amoral.” They may be right.

More startling than Michele’s initial laissez faire reaction is what happens when she does learn who the attacker was.

Verhoeven has a direct reply to those who find unconscionable that a rape victim would do anything other than seek maximum justice."This is not all women. It’s one woman, and a woman who had this very specific event in her childhood. We are not trying to represent everyone.”

Still, some are likely to say the movie is trivializing sexual assaults, a reaction that could put the film in the news in an unwanted way.

“In Europe I think it will be fine,” Verhoeven said.

And in America?

The director took a pause and gave a small wry smile. “It can’t be worse than ‘Showgirls.’”

@ZeitchikLAT


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