Amidst the horrible crimes being committed at her expense, Verhoeven fully sketches Michele's life and the relationships within her inner circle. A wealthy Parisian, she runs a video game company with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), though she's also sleeping with Anne's husband Robert (Christian Berkel). Her leadership style grates on the young men in her employ, who circulate a degrading video of her amongst themselves. Formerly married and with an adult son, Michele stays friendly with her ex Richard (Charles Berling), annoyed with her age-obsessed mother Irene (Judith Magre), and condescending towards her gentle son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who is expecting a baby with his rude girlfriend.
Verhoeven and writer David Birke, adapting a book by Phillippe Dijan, are knitting together several different stories into one cohesive film. Michele is more than complex enough to warrant her own story without the extremity of the opening scene and other scenes like it, and so many other threads are rich enough that if the film were to focus on less of them, Elle probably wouldn't lose anything. The whodunit of the rape quickly suggests a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style revenge thriller, and Elle makes some early nods to that, but it falls away as one of several things happening to Michelle at this point in her life. The rape exists side by side with work drama, the very French love triangle, her conflict with her mother, her exasperation with her son, and the revetting of her childhood. This is a character study of an endlessly rich protagonist, someone who obviously wants to know who is attacking her, but she's too occupied to let that be her only focus.
If the above is true, then the next question is why include the rape subplot at all? If Elle has enough going on that the rape could be jettisoned, why not jettison? This is an eminently reasonable query, and others would be justified in skipping Elle to avoid the brutal nature of those scenes, as they tragically hit home for far too many women. This is Verhoeven again engaging in shock to make a larger point, and if he's going to include such a visceral series of scenes, his point better be worth it. I believe it is, as Elle has a thematic consistency that radiates throughout its myriad plot points. Michele is being confronted with the uselessness of all the men around her, especially in contrast to the way she runs her business and her life. They all are transparently weak or craven or driven by superficial desire. Even she's culpable, as the games her company produces are sickening rape fantasies for men in arrested development. The rapist is only the most severe example of a gender that has equated physical strength with virtue, that has fooled itself into thinking that their masculinity is the most important part of themselves and it must be flattered and coddled at every opportunity, lest they put their one innate advantage to deadly use.
At the center of this cyclone is Huppert in the last of three excellent performances she gave in 2016 after Louder Than Bombs and Things to Come. She is many things in Elle, ranging from taskmaster to seductress, and each new turn is welcomed with awe. A dinner scene, where she plays hostess for almost every character, is sublime, as Huppert plays it like she's a medieval dowager, casting subtle, cutting aspersions on her friends and family while holding court at the head of the table. Equally great in small moments as she is in big ones, she wows at impromptu funerals, staff meetings, and in solitary moments when she imagines bludgeoning her rapist's skull in and a small smile creeps across her face. Long a personally-admired actor thanks to her work with Michael Haneke, Elle rockets her up into my personal upper echelon, where her inclusion in a project immediately bestows must-watch status upon it.
A testament to male fragility, Elle is a feminist epic in spite of itself, morphing from an exploitative film to a transcendent one over its all-too-brief runtime. Verhoeven has emerged from the wilderness with a primal yell, back to making the controversial and complicated fare of his best years. One of the cinematic jewels of 2016, with the year's best actor in her prime, Elle's not for everyone with its well-warranted opt-outs, but Huppert's performance alone makes the ordeal worth it. A-