Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert are made for each other, a filmmaker and a star who have spent a large portion of their careers exploring dark dramatic terrain in highly specific fashion.
Their collaboration in “Elle,” the story of a video game executive named Michèle (Huppert), who launches her own investigation and quest for revenge after she’s raped by a masked intruder, occupies boundary-pushing space, to be sure.
It consistently defies expectations in terms of how a narrative in this vein typically plays out.
It’s darkly humorous at times and sadistic at others; the violence is stark and uncompromising; the view of human nature remains consistently bleak.
There are also touches of domestic drama, in the depiction of the protagonist’s dysfunctional relationship with her ex-husband (Charles Berling) and deadbeat son, and the flashbacks to a dark childhood moment for Michèle.
Huppert navigates the territory with her usual ferocious commitment, and Verhoeven, working from screenwriter David Birke’s adaptation of the Philippe Djian novel “Oh...,” shapes the discordant details into a resonant character study.
This is fundamentally harrowing material, though, beginning with the sudden shock of Michèle’s rape while it is punctuated with other scenes of stomach-churning sexual violence.
Once you’ve established a willingness to engage with such depravity, it’s important to avoid reveling in it, and the picture takes such an absurd psychosexual turn in its third act that all claims to specificity in terms of depicting a character and her story rather than making a large comment about rape and its aftermath, are lost.
The plot shifts in a direction that sacrifices the gains achieved in Verhoeven and Huppert’s studious presentation of Michèle’s state of mind, and the way it colors the high-society Parisian world surrounding her.
It starts to play as edgy for the sake of being edgy, titillating without context, and comes to trivialize a very serious subject.