The first shot of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, in which a cat watches impassively as her owner, the middle-aged Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is violently raped by a masked intruder, immediately establishes the tone of this cruel and wonderfully perverse film. It’s a jet-black comedy studded with moments of shocking violence, and its feminism is in the vein of Catherine Breillat, Ms.45, and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat—which is to say that it’s not for the faint of heart. The rape scene at the beginning of the film is only the beginning of the nightmare for Michèle. In addition to her juggling an affair with a friend’s husband and a dysfunctional family whose antics would not be out of place in a TV sitcom, the trauma of her assault keeps repeating—first in her head (she replays the incident over and over again, with slight variations), and then in real life, as her attacker continues to stalk her. The nature of the relationship that develops between Michèle and her rapist is almost more disturbing than the initial attack itself. That’s when Elle gets really dark, and really interesting.
The film’s pulpier, more outré touches aside (did I mention that Michèle also happens to be the daughter of a convicted serial murderer?), it is incisive and unflagging in its enumeration of the violent acts—large and small—to which women are subject, day in and day out. When not being raped, she’s being called a cunt by her son, pressured to sleep with her lover when she’s not in the mood, and humiliated at work (where she’s developing a sexually violent video game designed to appeal to “horny” male players). As played by Huppert, Michèle reacts to most of these situations with a kind of bemused numbness, as if to say what else is new? The sexual violence against women in Elle is quotidian, almost banal in its ordinariness. The “surprise” revelation of Michèle’s attacker is also consistent with the fact that women are typically assaulted by men they already know—friends or neighbors, who seem friendly and charming—than by random strangers.