The Rules of the Game: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle


By Adam Nayman

In Elle, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) slaps her adult son in the face, sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, deliberately smashes into her ex-husband’s car and later pepper-sprays him, accidentally crashes her own car, buys a gun, and forces a much younger male employee at her video-game company to show her his penis as a penalty for insubordination—and that’s only a partial inventory of the ways in which she acts out over the course of the film. It’s unclear whether Michèle’s relentlessly aggressive behaviour is in response to her having been sexually assaulted in her home by a masked assailant in the very first scene of the film, or the result of psychic wires that got crossed a long time ago; the key is that Paul Verhoeven doesn’t ask us to choose. Yes, Elle is a movie about a woman who gets raped, and to some extent, the very specific ways in which she reckons with that experience—including, after some hesitation, an attempt to discover the rapist’s identity and take revenge. But it’s more accurate to say that, as its title implies, Elle is simply a movie about a woman, full stop. As skillfully and flawlessly acted by Huppert, who at this point can seemingly do no wrong with a halfway decent part, Michèle is one of the strongest and strangest movie characters in a long time.

Working from a surprisingly witty and literate script by David Birke—whose previous credits on Gacy (2003) and Freeway Killer (2010) didn’t exactly prepare us for this—Verhoeven has finessed Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel into a hybrid comeback vehicle for himself and a showcase for Huppert, who supposedly coveted the role from the beginning of the development process. Imperious despite her dinky stature and almost always in motion, Michèle is a well-coiffed powerhouse who slices through her domestic and professional environments like a well-honed blade, albeit one with (c.f. former Verhoeven accomplice Joe Eszterhas, who knows from knives) a jagged edge. Nothing slows her down or softens her up, but it’s not necessarily confidence that drives her so much as a flinty inscrutability that is by turns amusing, disturbing, admirable, and absurd. Unlike Huppert’s title character in Michael Haneke’s La pianiste (2001)—a film whose sadomasochistic shadow surely falls over certain parts of Elle—she’s not a pathological case, nor is she any sort of symbolic figure. Michèle evinces a variety of post-feminist stereotypes—bourgie culture-vulture, man-eater, sleek careerist—without fully inhabiting any of them, and her ability to take in stride both serious trauma and workaday annoyance feels like its own form of bristling defiance.

If La pianiste comes to mind because of Huppert, Elle is more generally reminiscent of another Haneke joint, Caché (2005), from which it borrows both its well-heeled Parisian setting and insinuating multimedia (sub)textures, with baroquely violent video games swapped in for creepy surveillance videos as ontological counterpoint to the main action. Verhoeven’s admiration for Haneke makes sense insofar as they’re both artists who enjoy using genre to implicate their audiences, except that the Dutchman is—and always has been—more honest and up front about what attracts him to extreme images and situations; it would never occur to him to hover judgementally above the fray. (The inclusion at one point of a YouTube fetish video for those who like seeing bugs being crushed underlines this, and also directly and hilariously invokes Starship Troopers [1997].) Haneke typically works very hard to reach the conclusion that people are self-interested hypocrites living in denial—basically, that they’re assholes. For Verhoeven, that’s not an insight, it’s a given, and after that a jumping-off point.

Taking its cues largely from Huppert’s beautifully vituperative line readings—many of them viciously sotto voce in the company of Michèle’s ostensible loved ones—Elle is very funny, and in ways that are new for Verhoeven. In his breakthrough Turkish Delight (1973), the director torqued Jan Wolkers’ downbeat realist novel into a springy, New Wave-inflected picaresque that pitted beautifully bawdy young Amsterdam hipsters against tight-assed emissaries of his country’s middle-class repression; the push-pull between fleshy rebellion and buttoned-up decorum was a warning shot across the bow of Dutch society. Crossing the ocean for RoboCop (1987), he unmasked a decade’s technocratic cruelty and ended by literally going for the jugular. Forty years later, Verhoeven’s point of view has pivoted away from impudent critique (in both his Dutch and Hollywood films) towards a more relaxed line of attack, which started in the little-seen experimental mini-feature Tricked (2012). There are scenes and scenarios in Elle that are completely outrageous, including the revelation of Michèle’s Gothic family history, which not only explains to some degree why she doesn’t go to the police after being attacked but also makes unexpected incursions into exploitation-flick territory. Yet the overall impression is of the serenity and elegance of plot points and reversals whirring away and locking tidily into place, even as the essential messiness of life—Michèle’s, certainly, but also potentially anybody’s—keeps oozing into view like an uncauterized wound, or blood bubbling to the surface of an ivory-white bubble bath.

On the level of craft, Elle is excellent, with clear, gleaming digital cinematography by Jacques Audiard’s usual DP Stéphane Fontaine and fleet editing from Job ter Burg, who cut Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006) and seems allergic to drag (the tightness is also a by-product of the script). The long-standing claims of Verhoeven’s “classicism,” which started around the time he came to Hollywood, don’t really square with the agile DV aesthetic on offer here (Fontaine had two HD cameras going at all times). However one would describe the style—I’d call it glossy, Buñuelian quasi-realism—it is simply a means to an end, because Elle is essentially a drama of ideas, expressed dialectically via each of Michèle’s major ongoing relationships, including at least two men who she suspects might secretly be her attacker.

If there is one scene that fully clarifies Verhoeven’s project, and also crystallizes his true influences, it’s a late exchange between Michèle and a female neighbour, who has plenty of reason at that point in the story to give her a wide berth. Instead, standing together in the middle of a quiet suburban street, the two women have an exchange that’s at once startling in its everything-on-the-table frankness and chilling because of the extra little bit that’s being withheld, or only acknowledged in a sideways way. That the quasi-confessional aspect of the dialogue is framed by a plastic statue of Jesus not-quite-hiding in plain sight is very Verhoeven—it’s in line with the resplendently full-frontal Christ manqué in The Fourth Man (1983), or RoboCop’s climactic walk over the water to finish off his foe, or the myriad crucifixes adorning Black Book. But the philosophy (such as it is) that passes between the characters and hangs over the final shots is finally very close to the humanist equanimity of Renoir’s La règle du jeu (1939), and its famous maxim that “Everybody has their reasons”—a ruthlessly pragmatic worldview located precariously between indulgence and indignation, and thus right in the sweet spot of a director who somehow always manages to have it both ways.


Cinema Scope: The original plan was for Elle to be shot and set in the United States, correct?

Paul Verhoeven: Yes, absolutely. When I was sent the book, I recognized the name of the author, Philippe Djian, because there was another movie based on one of his novels, Betty Blue (1986). I didn’t know his work, though, because he’d written 30 books, one every year. My producer Saïd Ben Saïd sent me Oh… and asked me if I was interested in making a movie out of it. I thought, “OK, this is different. I haven’t done something like this before.” It was more character-oriented. The human beings were more important than the action. And I thought it would be interesting to do a movie in Paris—or at least at the beginning, when I got the book. When we started to talk about it, we came to a different conclusion, which was that it might be interesting to a general international audience, and we should make the film in the US. There was a writer that I knew in Los Angeles and who I was working with on another project that didn’t go forward; his name is David Birke, and I like him very much. He’d done a really good rewrite for me of another script. I asked David to do the script, and we translated the whole novel into English for him. We discussed it, every chapter, what we liked in it. We had the understanding that it would all be American, whether it was going to be Chicago, Boston, or New York, or whatever. It could have been Seattle or something. I’m more European than American, but David is fully American, so I just let him go, and he transformed it. We were all satisfied, and we thought it was really good. Maybe a bit provocative or dangerous, but that was very attractive, I thought. The morality, or the lack of morality, attracted all of us. Saïd tried to see if he could find American financial partners, and I was looking for an American actress who was willing to play the part, which is audacious of course. We found out that on financial terrain and artistic terrain there was no enthusiasm, neither from the actresses nor the financiers. Nobody wanted to participate in this venture.

After a couple of months, Saïd called me and said that this wasn’t going anywhere in the United States. We had approached five or six top, A-list actresses and they all immediately refused: “No, no, no, absolutely not, we won’t do this.” So we realized we were on the wrong track. It seemed to be impossible to do it in the US. But from the beginning of the project—from the very beginning—I had had conversations with Isabelle Huppert. I talked to her in Berlin, at the festival there. And she was really enthusiastic about the book, and really wanted to do it. Now, confronted with the enormous lack of enthusiasm—or fear—from the American side, we decided to rewrite the script, and put it back in French, back through the French filter, with a French writer. We had to translate things back from the cultural deformation that we had applied to the novel. That took another month at least. Then we found out that in France, there were zero problems with financing it. We had an actress who was not afraid of the part, or the nudity, or the amoral—or non-moral—attitude of the main character! From that moment on, after “re-Frenching” it, there were no problems anymore, and it was a smooth route. Everything was very fast after this long loop through the American culture. We ended up with a French film about French culture that was very close to the French book.

Scope: Was the video-game subplot part of that “cultural deformation?” That seems like a very American invention, although I suppose they play video games in France, too.

Verhoeven: That was not in the original novel. In the book, Michèle is the CEO of a company that writes scripts. She has 20 writers working for her, doing scripts for television, and she supervises, sometimes in a very harsh way. We felt that in a movie, talking about scripts and stories and all that stuff—about characters and dramatic structure—would be extremely boring for an audience. My daughter told me that it should be something better than that. She’s a painter, and she suggested changing Michèle to somebody who is in charge of a company that makes video games. I asked David what he thought, and he turned out to know everything about video games. He likes video games. He plays video games. He knows the grammar of games and how you talk about them, and the tricks of the trade. So we changed it immediately!

Scope: Some of the imagery in the video game is similar to Starship Troopers, especially the alien with the tentacles. It looks like the Brain Bug.

Verhoeven: We invented a video game for the movie, but we were shooting in the offices of a Paris-based video-game company and we used some of their material. We didn’t have the money to create something totally new. That would have been way beyond our budget. We adapted one of their games that they had launched a year before. We started to realize as we were working that the video game was a kind of counterpoint or a parallel to the main issue of the film, which is rape. We made the story of our video game mirror the main narrative.

Scope: In the video game, though, there’s this very obvious ending with this triumphant act of vengeance, where the warrior woman is reborn…

Verhoeven: The Dark Force, yes.

Scope: But Michèle’s story doesn’t play out that way…

Verhoeven: Well, it depends. You can see it—and I saw it—that there is a sort of a divine punishment at the end. I looked at it that way. It’s very important how Michèle looks at the end of the last scene. The way Isabelle Huppert looks, in her eyes, there is a touch of a smile. She is not shocked. She’s like, “Well, you had this coming.” In some way, she is triumphant.

Scope: I’d say that Elle is more dependent on a single character—or a single performance—than any of your other movies, even Katie Tippel (1975) or Showgirls (1995), which also have these female protagonists. Michèle is sort of the whole movie.

Verhoeven: That’s because I had an actress of superb quality. She’s one of the most talented actresses in the world. I knew that because I’d seen so many of her films. Isabelle taking the part added a level to the movie that I doubt I would have gotten anywhere else.

Scope: The point of the movie seems to be that Michèle never backs away or retreats from the things that are happening to her. It’s strange to see a movie about a character who’s going through so much and who remains totally self-possessed the whole time.

Verhoeven: She refuses to be victimized. I think she sets the tone of the movie from the very beginning. We don’t see the rape; we see the aftermath. And then she gets up, she starts to clean up the broken cups on the ground, and takes a bath, and orders sushi. And that’s her character. She says: “OK, this happened to me.” She fought the guy, but he was too strong—we see that in the flashback. But she refuses to be the victim. When she goes to dinner with her friends, she says that she was raped, and when they start to comment on it she stops the whole conversation two seconds later to order. They react with shock, and she doesn’t want that to happen. She’s with her lover and her ex-husband, and yet she refuses to be thrown into the part that she’s been given, of somebody who has been raped.

Scope: You’ve never had female characters who let themselves be victimized, though. The women in your Dutch movies always fight back, and they win.

Verhoeven: That’s true of the men, too. The male character in Turkish Delight loses the love of his life to another guy, and then when she dies he takes the wig he’d given her and throws it in the garbage. He survives. He refuses to stop his life because this horrible thing has happened. He won’t accept it. That’s true in Soldier of Orange (1978) too. In all the movies I did with Rutger Hauer, he’s a survivor.

Scope: I guess I was thinking more of Rachel in Black Book.

Verhoeven: It’s true. I don’t know if it’s female-oriented, but in general, the Dutch movies are about survivors.

Scope: And what would you say about the various men in Elle?

Verhoeven: They’re not so great. Michèle’s ex-husband is ineffectual, and her son is a bit silly. He doesn’t see that his girlfriend is dominating him from the very beginning.

Scope: There’s a real focus on parental relationships—and guilt—in the film. Michèle is very critical of her son, but she’s also coping with the legacy of her father and the embarrassment of her mother dating a younger man. The family dynamics are complex…

Verhoeven: We took all of Michèle’s relationships—with her son, her mother, her father, her husband, her daughter-in-law, her secret lover, and the rapist—very seriously. For me one of the key aspects of the movie was drawing all those relationships, because I usually don’t go that far with my characters, or with them interacting in that way. If you look at Basic Instinct (1992), we don’t know anything about Michael Douglas’ partner, or even about Michael Douglas! Here, I thought it was good to go deep inside a group of people, where Michèle is at the centre and they all move around her. That’s in the novel, though, and that’s what attracted me to the novel, which is that it was partly a thriller, and partly social commentary.

Scope: You told me last year that you were a big fan of Caché, and I thought that Elle was like Caché without judgment. You don’t judge the characters for what they do.

Verhoeven: No, I try to let them be.

Scope: I also thought of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu.

Verhoeven: That was the film that I had in mind while I was shooting Elle.

Scope: Really?

Verhoeven: Yes! I mentioned it many times to the actors, who knew it of course. They were all French, so the reference was easy for them. La règle du jeu was extremely modern in 1939, and it still is. The way that the wife of the main character talks to her husband’s mistresses—that was the sort of talk that I was going for.

Scope: You’ve never made a totally class-based comedy—maybe parts of Turkish Delight, but there’s a level of social observation that’s different here. The satire isn’t as broad as it is in, say, Starship Troopers. It’s lighter and maybe more realistic.

Verhoeven: It’s a look at the bourgeoisie. That’s a word in French, right? Not quite aristocratic, but not working-class—the people are bourgeois.

Scope: So you could also cite Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972)…

Verhoeven: That’s the other film! You’re on target. That’s the other movie that was in the background the whole time. I think Saïd sent me the book because he thought I could work in a Buñuelian way. Belle de jour (1967) was one of the movies that I studied very closely.

Scope: What’s Buñuelian in Elle are all of the dreams, or the daydreams—Michèle’s fantasies. She keeps slipping into these reveries throughout the movie, which is strange, because I don’t know if there are dream scenes in any of your other movies. There are hallucinations in RoboCop.

Verhoeven: There are dream scenes in The Fourth Man. For the rest, no. I do like Buñuel’s dreams, and I like Ingmar Bergman’s dreams, especially in the movie about the old guy, Wild Strawberries (1959), which is a very beautiful dream! But in movies, dreams need to be at that level, or else it’s a bit kitschy. In this case, her dreams are sort of wish-dreams, like when she kills the guy with the ashtray. She thinks of what she could have done.

Scope: There’s a very unusual mix of memory and desire, and a kind of fantasy projection.

Verhoeven: It’s sort of her wish-fulfillment.

Scope: Some people have—admiringly—described Elle as a “rape comedy.” I think that the movie is funny, but in your other movies, I think rape has been treated very seriously: it’s a big part of Spetters (1983) and it also happens in Showgirls, in a scene that’s meant to be incredibly ugly. I wondered what you thought of Elle being called a comedy.

Verhoeven: I think it’s stupid when they describe it as a “rape comedy.” That suggests that the rape is comic. It’s a movie about life, and where things are happening simultaneously, or one after the other. There is violence everywhere. There is sexual abuse everywhere, 1,800 times a day in the US. These things happen. And then at the same time people are going to parties and to restaurants, and they have fun with each other, and they make love, and they’re basically amoral. It all happens together. So the movie is about the rape, but it’s also about how people live. I think I look at it in a critical way, or maybe in an amused way. But I don’t ever look at the rape in an amused way. The rape is extremely harsh, direct, and violent. There’s nothing comical about it!

You have to accept that life consists of several elements at the same time. If you say “rape comedy,” it’s a refusal to accept reality, or an attempt to put the movie into a genre. It’s not a genre movie, and there is no genre that you could put it in. It’s three or four different things. Basic Instinct is genre. It’s a thriller with a lot of genre. Elle is about rape, and the response to it, by a very specific woman, who has been through very specific, horrible things in her life before that. She has relationships, and love, and hate, and interests that have nothing to do with the rape. The movie is also about what Michèle does in the world. With genre, you have to stay inside something. I try to break with genre all the time.

Scope: The idea of Michèle in the world…is that why you changed the title of the book from Oh… to Elle? Because it’s totally about “her?”

Verhoeven: The original title is Oh… and I thought it wasn’t a good title. David said we should change it to Elle. It’s funny because we have an “elle” with “Isabelle.” And “Michèle” is also an “Elle,” right?

Scope: Can you talk about working with Isabelle? I’ve noticed that even when she works with strong directors, like Claire Denis or Michael Haneke, she sort of takes over what we see onscreen. I think she’s an example of an actor as an auteur, and I wonder if that was a different sort of experience for you, even after so many other movies and different sorts of movie stars.

Verhoeven: I had no problems with Isabelle ever. We agreed on everything. We didn’t discuss the part, really. We talked maybe half an hour about it, and maybe a bit on the set or in the makeup room. We’d talk about what we were doing that day, but with Isabelle I sort of just let her go. I thought that the less I said, the better I could get from her. She went so deeply into character, and I put my confidence in whatever she would do, even if it was breaking or changing the script. She would do that stuff. She would do things from other scenes, or continue with scenes after they were over, and I let her do it because she was so into that person. I had more confidence in her ability to perform and to express than in my own directorial supervision. I was so amazed by what she was doing that I often forgot to say “Cut.” It was so good, and better than what I had in my head, and better than what I thought could happen. It was extraordinary. I’ve never seen so much strength and inspiration in the right moments. It all came out of her being the character, and I tried to use every moment that she gave me.

Scope: Is this sort of collaboration—or this sort of movie—what you’re hoping to duplicate going forward? You told me last year that you keep watching Hollywood blockbusters because you want to see how they’re using digital special effects. Do you want to do something special effects-driven again?

Verhoeven: I don’t want to make one…or maybe I would do that if there was something, a script, that could be innovative, and so I wouldn’t feel like I was doing the same thing that everyone else has been doing for the last ten years. I have the feeling that we’ve exhausted the possibilities of special effects. Nothing amazes me, or suggests another possibility. That doesn’t mean that somebody won’t come up with something beyond what we see every week in the theatre. I want to be prepared, if necessary, to do something with special effects, but it has to be something new.

Scope: Elle is the first film you’ve made to be invited to Cannes, or at least to play in Competition there.

Verhoeven: Basic Instinct was at Cannes, but it was the opening-night film. It didn’t compete.

Scope: So maybe this is the beginning of a phase where you’re officially an “art” filmmaker.

Verhoeven: If it could go in that direction in the next couple of years—however much time I have—then I would certainly do that. I’m much more interested in people than I was before. I look more at people, and the way that characters treat each other, and betray each other—it was all in my movies before anyhow, but more so now. I would love to move in that direction, and I would love to stay there. The industry doesn’t give you what you want, though. You have to find the book. You have to find the script. Something challenging, something that hasn’t been done—in genre or outside of it—I would take it. I won’t sit for ten years until something like this comes again. That would be silly. You’re lucky to get a book, a script, and an actress like we did in Elle. It’s comparable for me to Turkish Delight or to RoboCop. The moments where you get a present like this are rare, and it’s rarer that you’re able to do it, or that you’re inspired to do it. Sometimes you make movies because you make movies, and that’s it. You’re waiting for the real challenge.

Scope: You sound as if you’re up for anything.

Verhoeven: If I like it, I think can do it. And if I like it very much, then I will do it. Nayman Adam