Movie Review: “Elle” makes Verhoeven relevant again

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Michelle lets it slip, almost casually, in a restaurant — at a group dinner with friends.

“I guess,” she hems and haws, “I was raped…I feel stupid for bringing it up.”

But we already know that. We’ve seen the brutal home invasion, the punches, and heard the glass shatter. And we’ve watched her throw away her torn clothes, clean up, order sushi.

And at work? She calls to get her locks changed, only to field menacing, sexually taunting texts from her assailant.

“Elle” is no ordinary rape victim. Leave it to the Dutch master of kink, Paul “Basic Instinct” Verhoeven, to bring a distinctly disturbing take on a notorious novel to the screen, a comeback of sorts for him and his fierce, almost ageless 60something star, Isabelle Huppert.

Michelle is a take-no-guff co-owner of a video game company, and the way she lords it over her young male staff makes her certain that her attacker came from their ranks.

But she’s having an affair with the husband (Cristian Berkel) of her co-owner and closest friend (Anne Consigny). She is sarcastically rude to the rent-boy her aged mother (Judith Magre) has taken up with, and utterly intolerant of the hair-triggered pregnant girlfriend her son (Jonas Bloquet) loves.

There’s an ex-husband (Charles Berling) whom she cheated on and regularly insults and whose car she vandalizes.

The list goes on. Some of them could have done it, others could be motivated to pay someone to do it.

But there are also hints of Michelle’s further, even more infamous notoriety.

The Oscar favorite for Best Foreign Language Film (in French with English subtitles) is no ordinary thriller, as Verhoeven films that unblinking opening scene with just enough titillation to let us think — maybe for a moment — that this is rough sex play that’s gotten out of hand.

He teases us with suspects, left, right and center. He never flinches from the violence of it all. And if he never quite puts his heroine on the psychiatrist’s couch, that’s by design. We do the head shrinking from the distant comfort of our cinema seats.

At the center of the mystery is the poker-faced Huppert. Michelle takes a sexual assault and later an ugly confrontation in a cafe, a trip to a self-defense shop to buy pepper spray and a hatchet, all in stride. It’s as if it’s her due, she’s used to it and trying to get the authorities to intervene would be fruitless.

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We’re slow to solve the mystery, pondering the various suspects assembled for us. The script solves it for us, abruptly and a little too casually.

But Verhoeven, a chilly, efficient director of arms-length sexually-charged thrillers, doesn’t want you to fall for the heroine. He wants you to almost pity the man. He’s done something heinous, but he’s not walking away from it. And this broad is going to mess him up, we just know it.

It’s a performance of measured menace and silent suffering, maybe even survivor’s guilt. And Huppert, after a career that has included “Entre Nous,” “8 Women,” and the equally unnerving “The Piano Teacher,” makes this unfiltered fury the capstone of a stunning career in which she journeyed from French sex symbol to grande dame of European cinema without losing even a hint of her allure.

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MPAA Rating: R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jonas Bloquet, Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel, Laurent Lafitte, Charles Berling

Credits:Directed by Paul Verhoeven, script by David Birke, based on the novel by Philippe Djian. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:11

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