Last year, people kept saying stuff like “Paul Verhoeven is BACK with Elle!,” and yes, true, he had a new movie get released last year, and it is in fact a brilliant piece of work on multiple levels, but I’d argue that he never WENT anywhere in the first place. Hollywood simply became uninterested in making his brand of films, and instead of whoring himself out for the all-mighty pay-check, he decided to do other things, and get European financing for the cinematic stories that he’s felt inclined to tell after his last studio production, 2000’s Hollow Man (2006’s Black Book and Elle are his only two films in the last 17 years). He’s always been a premiere satirist, and is a filmmaker who has a tremendous sense of craft and command over his directorial choices. And with Elle, he’s made his most provocative film in years, with the truly amazing Isabelle Huppert dropping a challenging and empowering performance, playing a hugely complex character where nothing can ever truly be fully understood.
David Birke’s mischievous, witty, and psychologically probing screenplay, which was an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, never lets anyone off the hook, and paints an exasperatingly dark portrait of a woman whose life is forever altered by the past, and who is trying to make sense of a very strange future. Stephane Fontaine’s shadowy and elegant cinematography made terrific use of subjective camera placement, and in one notable moment, got old-school-swervy in a way that recalls Verhoeven’s past cinematic glories. Job ter Berg’s exacting editing only allows for the perfect amount of visual information to be given in any given sequence, establishing a perfect rhythm with Anne Dudley’s unnerving and mysterious musical score. Oh yeah, and the film is also unexpectedly and darkly funny, which was easily the most surprising element to a film that has a lot of surprises in store for the viewer; if all you’ve seen is the trailer, then there’s plenty of stuff that will take you off guard, not the least of which being the film’s perverse sense of black comedy.