You shouldn’t feel too embarrassed if your reaction to Isabelle Huppert’s Best Actress Oscar nomination for Elle was a resounding, “Who she?” At least in this country, you aren’t alone. In Europe, Huppert is a legend. She’s just never had much of a U.S. presence since she got cast as Kris Kristofferson’s hooker honey in Michael Cimino’s infamous flop Heaven’s Gate, which came out the year Ronald Reagan got elected president.
Calling her “the French Meryl Streep,” which is the sort of sneaky ploy critics resort to when we’re trying to grab your attention, actually leaves Streep looking like the also-ran in a few key ways. No matter how indefatigably brilliant St. Meryl is, she’s never had Huppert’s boldness, dry insolence, splendid indifference to winning the audience’s love and invariably sexualized relationship to the camera. All those qualities are on vibrant display in Elle, which is definitely the kinkiest movie to nab a top-category Oscar nod in quite a while.
Black comedies that begin with the heroine’s rape by a masked intruder in her home don’t come along every day—and we’re not saying they should. But getting indignant about Elle’s premise will probably just make director Paul Verhoeven snicker that he hasn’t lost his touch. If his name doesn’t ring bells for you either, that’s because his best-known movies—Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, RoboCop and the ineffable Showgirls—all came out between 20 and 30 years ago. He’s now 78 years old, but still able to start arguments over whether he’s a brainy satirist or just a prurient opportunist. His real perversity is that he’s never seen any contradiction in being both at once.
Sex only sells at multiplexes these days as a subject for farce.
Even so, the prurience is Elle is basically cerebral, meaning that it’s meant to taunt you intellectually as opposed to turning you on. What happens after the opening rape is that the heroine and her rapist gradually fall into a relationship. Once he’s unmasked, she’s willing to have a conventional affair with him, but he insists he can’t get off that way. At the same time, she’s also fairly indolently sleeping with her unsuspecting best friend and business partner’s husband. But it’s never clear if she’s getting any pleasure out of any of this, and her weird passivity and/or masochism turns out to be the result of trauma; her father was a notorious mass murderer who enlisted his then 10-year-old daughter as an unwitting accomplice after the fact.
If that seems like it could be some kind of metaphor for Europe’s discomfiting 20th-century history, it probably is. Verhoeven’s childhood was spent in then Nazi-occupied Holland, and World War II is never entirely off his mind—well, except in Showgirls, maybe. But the heroine’s upscale social milieu lets him get pretty sardonic about the 21st century as well, from its aesthetic innovations (Huppert’s character is a one-time publishing executive turned successful video-game entrepreneur) and bourgeois privilege to a few nasty swipes at one of his perennial bugaboos, the Catholic church. Not all of the movie works, especially a finale that’s annoyingly conventional (meaning the rapist is duly punished) and psychologically cloying (meaning the implication that all this has been a healing process to get over complicity in Dad’s sins). Even so, for both better and worse, it’s still the kind of movie you can’t get out of your head for several days after seeing it.
What’s hard to believe is that Verhoeven originally hoped to set Elle in the U.S. and get a bankable female star to play the lead. (Unsurprisingly, every A-list American actress he approached turned him down cold.) Sex only sells at multiplexes these days as a subject for farce, and we’ve never been much good at seeing it ironically—that is, as a vehicle for talking about other things, the way Elle does. With rare exceptions, our top directors are downright neurotic in how they steer clear of the subject. A compilation of The Greatest Sex Scenes in Martin Scorsese Movies would be the shortest YouTube video in history.
So it may be to the Academy’s credit that its members saw fit to recognize Elle at all, even if Verhoeven’s movie missed out on the Best Foreign Film nomination a few cockeyed optimists were rooting for. (It won the Golden Globe in that category instead, and so did Huppert in hers. But it is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, after all.) Still, the Best Actress Oscar that Huppert is unlikely to win (the smart money’s on Emma Stone) would be a nice salute to the idea that there are worse things in movies than being disturbing. She’s spent a lot of her career proving it.