This film was reviewed on November 18th as first seen at this year’s AFI FEST presented by Audi

Given the outcome of our current political climate, it’s been made evident that women nationwide are searching for a strong female role model: A woman who is both confident and nurturing, respectable and responsible. While looking to politics might not be the answer right now, Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, ‘Elle,’ is divisive enough that it can either be that source of female empowerment for those who chant “My body, my choice,” or likely irritate the alt-feminist. With a powerhouse performance from the legendary Isabelle Huppert, ‘Elle’ is an uncomfortable watch at times, but the result is nonetheless a provocative and emotionally-charged drama.

‘Elle,’ which translates to “she” in French, tells the story of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), a middle-aged divorceé who finds herself the victim of a brutal rape, in her own home nonetheless. She has her reasons for not going to the police (which is uncovered later) and does her best to put it behind her. She keeps her composure at work where she oversees the production of a borderline pornographic medieval fantasy video game. However, little triggers like the sound of her cat’s meow initiate violent flashbacks, which make it impossible for her to forget that night. What’s worse, Michèle’s attacker is stalking her, breaking into her home and leaving behind traces of his presence. The mind games finally become too much for her and the ruthless attitude she has held all along becomes jeopardized as she willingly and subconsciously gives into her attacker’s sadistic ways.

What’s so fascinating about this film is that our protagonist is a victim of rape, yet uses her situation as both empowering victimizing, simultaneously. This is not a black and white film in regards to Michèle’s response to her attack – in fact, I’m sure there will be people who had the same reaction I did – one of, “Why is she doing that!?” It’s a fact that Michèle and I would respond to in very different ways, especially once a disturbing childhood event may make sense of things. ‘Elle’ shouldn’t be criticized for its offering of brutal honesty and insight into the emotionally complex feelings of this particular woman.

Director Paul Verhoeven, whose past credits include ‘Total Recall,’ ‘Starship Troopers,’ and ‘Basic Instinct,’ creates one of his most provocative films to date with plot and character twists that make this movie anything but conventional. ‘Elle’ is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, and so while the story may not be original, Verhoeven’s adept eye creates a visually stunning and layered world. Michèle is such an ambiguous character, our interest in her is always piqued as we wonder what she is going to do next. His ability to retain an audience’s attention, especially during particularly grievous moments, is truly mesmerizing.

Despite its heavy thematic content, ‘Elle’ steers clear from ever being melodramatic or depressing. Humorous, albeit darkly humorous, dialogue is sprinkled throughout the film, giving audiences a much-needed outlet for laughter. After a successful festival run (the Cannes audience gave the film a seven-minute standing ovation), ‘Elle’ has been selected as France’s choice for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration.

‘Elle’ is rated R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language. 130 minutes. Now playing at ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark, expanding to additional cities in the coming weeks.