There will be virtual reams of web print dedicated to unpicking the levels of offense that should be felt in response to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which played for press this morning at the Cannes Film Festival. To say it safely, it’s a blackly comic thriller about a woman’s life and past that opens with her rape at the hands of a masked intruder. Where it goes from there seems sure to provoke discussion — confirmed by a question at the press conference that followed — but the screening inspired peals of laughter and hearty applause at its conclusion, so it’ll take an intrepid hack to suggest it doesn’t work in spite of its blending comedy with topics generally deemed too serious to joke about. In fact, the film is a late-festival triumph, marked by a career-best lead performance from the peerless Isabelle Huppert. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film early in the festival.
Verhoeven confirmed afterward that his interest in Philippe Djian’s novel was precisely its originality; it wasn’t something he’d tackled before. The project came to him from producer Saïd Ben Saïd and Verhoeven handed it off to an American screenwriter — David Birke — with a view to relocate the Paris-set tale to the U.S. It would have been Verhoeven’s first U.S.-set film since 2000’s Hollow Man, but he noted that a number of American actresses turned the lead down, so when it fell to the unflappable Huppert, Verhoeven instead brought the story back to its home. It’s his first film in the French language.
The director told Deadline at the press conference that he hasn’t seen writing of this strength in America. “I can’t really find interesting American scripts,” he said. “There’s a little in certain directions, or [stories] I have already done, or that don’t interest me,” Verhoeven said. “What I got from Phillippe is something different. Sure, there are elements that I’ve done, but in general it was something new for me to do this kind of thriller that also has a little bit of comedy… That’s why I did Black Book; that’s why I did Elle.”
He doesn’t miss the money that comes with American projects, either. “I think that’s boring,” he said. “I mean, [money] comes anyhow if you’re good, doesn’t it?”
With RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven defined Hollywood science fiction of the late 80s and 90s, but he had harsh words for America’s obsession with the fantastical today. “I’m not so positive about the further development of all this science fiction stuff,” he said. “I have the feeling that everything has been said and done and that we should go back to normality. All these big superheroes and whatever, I mean I don’t know what kind of wish-dream this is of the United States, but I feel that we lost contact completely with normal people and that the story of us is more interesting than that of a superhero.”
This story, too, doesn’t offer any easy conclusions for its audience. Noted Huppert of Elle‘s controversial directions: “A great quality of the film is that Paul doesn’t have to answer. Most of us don’t really know who we are. Often we are confronted by events without finding solutions. We continue, we live, and that’s what I did [for the role].”
“I don’t believe in the American statement that there has to be evolution in a character,” Verhoeven said. “I feel like everyone stays the same his whole life, [and] you adapt best you can. I’m the same person I was when I was six-years-old, always doing things that my best friends hated. There is no evolution here; there are just things that happen.”
Asked if she thought the film’s themes were controversial, Huppert uttered a simple “No,” confirming novelist Dijan’s remarks that this wasn’t a story that applied to all women. “It’s not a realistic story, or a statement about a woman being raped and accepting their rapist,” she said. “The fantasy is in yourself, and it’s not necessarily something you want to happen, but it’s something you couldn’t confess. It happens to this woman in particular as an individual.”
“We avoided any Freudian interpretation,” Verhoeven noted. “I think that should be for the audience. More than any film I’ve made it’s up to the audience to fill in.”