Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has spent decades cine-psychoanalyzing the relationship between sex and violence, pulp and profundity. Since the septuagenarian director hasn't made a proper feature since Black Book in 2006, he has been spared the overly didactic hot-take interpretations that proliferate online. But his new film, Elle, adapted by David Birke from Philippe Djian's novel Oh..., is, in a way, Verhoeven's own hot take on his career. It stars Isabelle Huppert as a rape survivor named Michèle, a former literary editor who now develops fetid video games about goblins and trolls, concoctions conjoined from Lovecraft, Tolkien and the Marquis de Sade. Just as Verhoeven uses lowbrow genres to create scathing satires of capitalism (RoboCop) and fascism (Starship Troopers), Michèle uses video games to expose nasty truths about human desires: Her monsters violate women from behind with writhing tendrils.
Brutal violence usurped by a smile is maybe the defining idea of the film. Verhoeven treats sexual violence with sobriety (he has repudiated some critics' queasy description of Elle as a "rape comedy"), but most of the film is a burlesque of manners and mannerisms. Verhoeven extrapolates the novel's ideas on the role of forgiveness and penance and Christian veneration in a rotten world into something far more cryptic: an inquiry into not just the nature of what we call "evil," but what kinds of transgressions and monsters we're willing to ignore or absolve. It's unrepentantly a Paul Verhoeven film, but it owes everything to Huppert, whose straight-faced comic delivery has never gotten as much renown as her more solemn work. She makes Elle a serious work of art that mocks Serious Works of Art™.