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For over forty years Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has been courting controversy and pushing boundaries with his uncompromising portrayal of sex and violence in both his native country and Hollywood. First breaking through to international audiences in the 1980s with the brutal action satire RoboCop, Verhoeven incited protests and box office success with his erotic thriller Basic Instinct and its notorious leg-crossing scene, although his career almost came to an end with the phenomenal failure of Showgirls in 1995. Following the CGI-heavy Hollow Man, Verhoeven returned to his home country and directed the underrated World War II drama Zwartboek and now, eight years later, he has finally returned with his latest offering. But at almost eighty-years-old, the filmmaker shows no sign of holding back from difficult themes or subject matters as Elle, his fifteenth feature, tackles the aftermath of a sexual assault.
Raped in her home by a masked assailant, Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) withholds the incident from the police and discusses the events with her friends in a somewhat nonchalant manner, initially dismissing her cuts and bruises as the result of a bike accident. Changing the locks and sleeping with a hammer, Michèle utilises what little information she has on her attacker in an effort to hunt him down, even learning how to fire a handgun for when the moment finally arrives. Since the film made its debut earlier in the year the critical reaction has been strong, with plaudits in particular praising the work of both Verhoeven and his star. ‘Verhoeven creates a bonfire of a movie that scrutinizes and satirises the unholy alliance between sex and violence,’ declared Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. ‘You can’t take your eyes off the fearless Isabelle Huppert.’
‘I’ve been hearing that it’s controversial since we started showing the movie in April, but with audiences after April, the controversy has not started,’ explains the director in a recent interview with Collider. ‘Actually, you could say that the controversy started in pre-production because it was hard to get an American actress, it was impossible to say yes to the part, so we went to France; Isabelle was very keen on doing it. I mean, sure, a controversy could start but basically I haven’t seen any evidence of that and certainly not in the countries where I was with the movie in England, Spain, Germany, France and in Canada, none. The US is not the same as Canada, so it’s possible; sure, controversy is always possible in America. People love controversy. But I am absolutely not nervous about it.’
Verhoeven has no qualms about causing notoriety or upsetting his audiences, something that he has done since the beginning of his career. While his homegrown pictures Turks fruit and De vierde man generated controversy for their erotic content, Verhoeven seemed even more at home in Hollywood where he would regularly challenge the status quo with brutal violence and full frontal nudity. Even before the release of Basic Instinct, the project had caused waves throughout the industry, with protests interrupting the shoot due to the script allegedly being anti-gay and anti-women. The movie, which launched Sharon Stone into the mainstream, told of a detective’s growing obsession with an author he is investigating for murder, yet the film became known more for its sexual elements than the story. ‘Earlier this year, before filming began, Mr. Eszterhas and Irwin Winkler, the initial producer, left the project when Mr. Verhoeven wanted to make the script more sexually explicit,’ claimed an article in the New York Times prior to the picture’s release. ‘Mr. Eszterhas returned when he and the director came to an agreement about the changes.’Shot in the spring of 2015 on location in Paris and based on the novel Oh… by French author Philippe Djian, whose book 37˚2 le matin had provided to the source material for the classic drama Betty Blue, Elle was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, a far cry from the Razzie Award that Verhoeven received following the critical mauling of Showgirls in the 1990s. ‘I really looked at the story and basically stayed true to the story and I could imagine that Michele would react this way,’ continued Verhoeven on how he portrayed the events following the rape of his protagonist. ‘I was very precise in the beginning of the movie to establish a character in four shots. In fact, basically the film starts with the aftermath of the rape and then next thing she does is clean up the room, throw away the dress that she wore, putting that in the garbage bag, taking a bath and wiping away the blood come out of her vagina. I thought basically that sequence was the character; she won’t be defined by her rape but her actions.’