Paul Verhoeven, oft noted for his bombast, violence and misogyny, remains largely uncredited as a filmmaker able to see deeply into the society of his time. The mind that birthed Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls is vindicated by the passing years as those films are revealed to be an all too clear-eyed look into the world at the moments of their release; the global psyche that overflowed with police state and techno-paranoia, the overly-sexualized and vicious relationships with their fellow humans are all on full display in those films and unabashedly so. Elle remains another such triumph as Verhoeven returns after ten years to summarize the modern world, which has only moved further in the direction laid out by those previous films all on its own. Like De Palma's Passion a few years back, Elle sees cold and tired human beings unable to feel, unable to hold a clear identity as they exist as simultaneous victim and aggressor in their own personal lives. Cut off from lifelines necessary to form real bonds with their fellows, they occupying a space of either observer who casts a gaze of judgement and projects motivations (yet uses the same gaze to fuel arousal), and player (or actor) to whom none of their own scruples as observer come into play when making decisions. Ultimately, their movements, which are decided by an equation of desire, attachment and survival, reflect only the player in the game as they move from one scene to the next and try to hold themselves together. Elle depicts a culture constantly on the brink of demise, and yet through the calculated mantra that above all they must move forward, the wide cast of characters we are presented with shakes off any tragedy or hardship for the moment, only to be haunted, yet never consumed, by it as the days pass.
Huppert's character is the showpiece for this era, her movements are enigmatic to the audience and to herself. She stands in harsh condemnation of those closest to her for their failings and exhibits a clear lack of such feelings in her own life, which she allows to be a fleeting flirtation with a flickering flame on most occasions. The more intense the fire, the more it could cause destruction, the more attracted she is to its glow. Verhoeven frames Huppert in a constantly weakened state, with selfish and petulant children-in-adult-bodies constantly on the verge of getting the best of her. She is a target. She has been all of her life. We see in full scale the society's readiness to take a human being and turn it into a monster at any moment, a new witch to hunt, and we see the full experience of the human behind the monster. Though they draw the ire of the entire world, it is difficult to live under such a gaze of scrutiny. This is Huppert's revenge. Due to tragedy in her past, being cast in an unfair light, she has always felt the burn of the scrutiny, the eyes of world looking to her in condemnation and she turns to the world and delivers it the same beating that it delivered her. How strange that we absorb all hardship, forget it, move on, and then in our haunted state, use the same tools used to hurt us to get back at the world. This manifests itself in Huppert's inability to use the law to help herself, instead desiring to see her injustices made right through physical violence and pain. As we're dropped into this world of pain abruptly, we have little context with which to view the film or our lead character, we have only our preconceived notions, which are dashed at every turn. It is still not clear, when looking back on the film, whether all conclusions are solid or simply notions of conclusions. We know the hard truths, perhaps one raises a child not their own, perhaps the mother is truly the victim of the situation as an early birth is clearly triggered by physical activity while the would-be father watches television. Perhaps a mother who was never close to her son, instead allowing him to become mothered in surrogate by another woman, will never lose her resentment. How strange that in our world, victimization can come in the form of both physical brutality and rape as well as violations of inner worlds in degrees almost unnoticed. The more unnoticed, in fact, the more the feelings of guilt arise. To violate one's home, to penetrate one's body is the ultimate physical violation, yet to receive sexual gratification from gazing when the observed is unaware they are being used as an object of gratification seems to equate in some way. Huppert is unable to condemn her own assault and even dances closer and closer to her assailant only after her scopophilic episode of lust toward him. Reservations are raised, and yet ignored, about hacking into the personal data of many individuals, combing through their inner worlds with an eye towards the perverse has the ability to pervert the benign. Our new world of transparency and inhumanity is a contradiction unto itself and leads to conclusions that a new approach is needed. The film works much in the arch of tension and release, much in the same way that the modern mode of human interaction seems to. In Huppert's relationship to her mother, all actions boil to a point of being reprehensible; any and all movement by her mother as a human being causes deep hatred and manifests in her actions of condemnation toward her at every turn, even believing her death is a mere trick, a cry for attention. The tension built up in their relationship is subsequently released, and yet forgiveness is not the outcome, merely a new feeling of aloof acceptance. The same plays out with her business partner and an affair, as well as with her central conflict of her assailant. All is merely a stimulus to be either ignored or responded to, but never to truly acknowledge.
Once again, Verhoeven has crafted a deep look into the era, a world that has taken all elements of human life in the 2010's into account. While Iggy Pop's 'Lust for Life' drones on in the background, characters who believe they are lusting after what's left of life continue to move and fuck and do business. In the world around them are all the people who were unable to triumph in this world, not helped by anyone the complete independence and isolation begins to show. We are all alone against this world, without help of the society against our aggressors, and in the end, learning to fall in love with the abuse rather than truly fight against it. Verhoeven has crafted a parable of the modern age in the best sense and has left us with doubt, questions and the best that his cinema has to offer; reflection on where we are and where we can go from here. Elle leaves us with the feeling that no matter what deep, dark realities we are faced with, we can always drown in fiction, ignore the present and follow survival over thought. Terrifying it should be, and that's the antagonist in this story; it's the inner mind of the protagonist who acquiesces to it all.