The director of Basic Instinct returns with a film too lurid to have been made in the US. It cuts to the bone, in some cases literally, writes critic Sam Adams.

Near the beginning of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) reclines in a warm bubblebath, the picture of haute bourgeois comfort but for the faint red patch of blood floating in the water with her. She's just been raped and savagely beaten in her home by a masked stranger, and the wounds are still fresh, but already they're distant from her, the blood floating at arm's length from her body.

Verhoeven’s career has tended towards the gleefully, sometimes wonderfully, tasteless

There's blood in several scenes in Elle, which is the first feature Verhoeven has directed since 2006's Black Book. It's at Michèle's job, where she runs, with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny), a company that makes violent video games for teenage boys; it's at home, where memories of her trauma surface without warning and her cat leaves a mangled bird on her doorstep. And it's in her past: her father is an infamous spree killer who murdered dozens of their neighbors and enlisted Michèle, then only 10, to help clean up the mess.

It's a tricky subject for Verhoeven, whose career, especially during the 15 years he spent in the US film industry, has tended towards the gleefully, sometimes wonderfully, tasteless. But though Elle eventually takes its place amidst Verhoeven's oeuvre, and is one of the best films in it, it doesn't feel that much like one of his past films; even a diehard Verhoevenite previously unaware of its existence might get through the entire movie without guessing its director.

In part, that's because Verhoeven is working in French, a language in which he's never made a film, and, until he began preparing to make it, didn't comfortably speak. Although it's based on Oh..., a novel by the French author Philippe Dijan, the screenplay was written in English by David Birke, with an aim towards making Verhoeven's first US film since the turn of the century. The subject matter made that impossible, but if production had been shifted to France for the sole purpose of allowing Huppert to be cast in the leading role, it would have been the right decision. 

Tasteful or trashy?

At the Toronto Film Festival this year, Huppert is as common as streetlights; turn the corner, and there's a poster for another film with her in the lead. But even in her prolific and accomplished career, Elle is a high-water mark. She keeps her assault secret for some time, avoiding calling the police because her tangential involvement with her father's crime has made her a pariah – if, now, a rather wealthy one – for decades. But Verhoeven tracks Michèle through her daily life like a dog on the trail of a scent, picking out the moments when her trauma comes close to the surface, sometimes prompted by a mocking text from her unidentified attacker. Or make that traumas, since the rape, along with the publicity surrounding her father's upcoming parole hearing, brings her past into the present as well. It's all one big bloody mess, roiling beneath Huppert's gelid, ash-white exterior.

Verhoeven knows something about turning childhood trauma into a career

We see early on that Michèle has turned the violence she witnessed as a child into a prosperous career: after her game designers show her a sequence where a scantily clad, improbably curvaceous woman has her skull penetrated by a monstrous tentacle, she chides them that "the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid." She's forever attached in the public mind to an infamous photograph of her 10-year-old self, half-dressed and covered with soot, as she helped her father burn the evidence of his crimes, and is associated with and even blamed for his actions, but she's made it work for her, even in an industry where programmers can have endemic issues with answering to a female boss.

Verhoeven, who was raised amid World War Two bombing raids, knows something about turning childhood trauma into a career, but he's often buried it under layers of irony and gore. Elle is a more visually subdued movie than anything he's made in decades, with only flashes of his naughty-boy wit: when Michèle flashes back to her rape, Verhoeven cuts in to the eyes of her cat, watching with vague curiosity as she screams. But it's also closer to the bone, stripped of the predictable comforts of genre, as well as its subversive pleasures. The tension in Elle comes less from Vehoeven himself than from Huppert, who manages to be supremely controlled and utterly unpredictable at any moment. Not only don't you know what she'll do next, you get the sense that Michèle doesn't either, that she's being guided by instinct towards a spiritual purgation she doesn't fully understand.

Whether it was working with a strange crew in a strange land or the decade-long gap between features, Verhoeven has come to Elle refreshed, even renewed. Directors in their later years often settle comfortably into their preoccupations, doodling happily around the edges of their previous careers. Verhoeven is still trying to make masterpieces, and with Elle, he comes awfully close.

★★★★☆

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