Paul Verhoeven has had quite an interesting late career. After making (what I consider) classics like Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven slowed down and re-emerged with Black Book (a surprisingly impressive WWII film about a female spy). He followed that up with Tricked, a short film (under one hour) that I didn't see. Now he's back with another interesting female-driven film: Elle.
Elle starts off mid-rape. That should be enough to let you know if you're going to stick with it or bail out. Many will probably bail out. It's understandable. Rape is not a simple issue, and this film's treatment of it can be seen as offensive. It's understandable if people come away offended, but this is a truly interesting film about modern women that should not be defined by rape.
Elle is a complex character piece about the titular woman played by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert, by the way, gives one of the most nuanced, amusing performances of the year. The film starts out with her being raped, and it seems like it's going to be a thriller about her finding out who did it, but it's so much more than that. Who raped her is not really that important. Her reaction to the rape is more interesting that who did it. She reacts as if it were a common everyday occurrence, finally telling her ex-husband and a couple friends at dinner a few days after it happens.
To explain much further would be pointless. There are so many sub-plots that it would disservice the film to list them because it would make it seem melodramatic, which it is not. Elle is endlessly fascinating, and, more importantly, darkly comic. You can't help but laugh during certain moments.
This is why the rape issue should not be the be-all end-all. People get hung up on that word and can't deal with the film beyond it. But this film is about a woman who has experienced trauma before and refuses to be defined by it. She takes over the trauma, rather than letting it define her. Maybe that makes it offensive, but it's really more empowering than your standard rape/revenge film. Just giving a woman a knife and letting her get revenge does not make her powerful; it makes her the same as her attacker. Having a woman experience rape, among many other things, and then moving on in her own way is much more powerful.
That said, this isn't some feminist film about the power of women. Verhoeven delights in our expected reactions. Who else would start a film that is nearly a comedy with a rape? He's playing with our perception, which is what makes his latest work among his most interesting. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see a resurgence of his gory, action heyday, but this type of film is equally satisfying. It is easily the most thought-provoking work of Verhoeven's career.