“Inverted flame combustion.” That’s the kind of heat generated by a self-made furnace that makes a late cameo in Paul Verhoeven’s highly flammable “Elle,” a violently dark comedy in which passion and cruelty burn together in the same perverted, masochistic fire.
It begins startlingly, to say the least, with the muffled screams of rape. The noises have ceased when Verhoeven’s camera first reveals a masked man, clad in black, standing up from the woman he has just assaulted on her floor. A cat quietly watches.
Other films might follow such an abrasive starting point with tears, revenge or justice. But the woman, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) we later learn is her name, catches her breath once her assailant has fled. She sweeps up the broken glass (with her heels still on), makes herself a bath and calmly orders in sushi before a visit from her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet).
That Michele isn’t shattered by the encounter will lose some who understandably refuse to tolerate any imagining of rape that eludes devastation. Verhoeven, rebuffed by Hollywood, took to France to tell the story, adapted by David Birke from Philippe Dijan’s novel “Oh …” The Dutch-born director of “Basic Instinct” and “RoboCop,” here making his French language debut and his first feature in 10 years, has long blurred misogynist exploitation with feminist empowerment.
“I supposed I was raped,” Michele later tells her friends over dinner. Everyone’s jaws drop. She’s ready to hear the dinner specials.
Michele is too dispassionate for victimhood or, it turns out, many other emotions. As Verhoeven coolly, masterfully unspools the pulpy, dense layers of “Elle,” her character comes into relief. With her longtime best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) she runs a successful literary-minded video game company in Paris. She lords over a small army of young, nebbish men. Not days after the rape, she’s lecturing them that “the orgasmic convulsions” of a demon character are “way too timid.”
There is much, much more. Michele is sleeping with her best friend’s husband, despite loathing him; caressing her married neighbor’s crotch under the dinner table; watching in vain as her son devotes himself to his attractive but vile girlfriend; growing jealous of her ex-husband’s fling; and disapproving of her botoxed mother’s affair with a young man. Her mother, wounded by Michele’s disgust, retorts, “You always wanted a sanitized version of life.”
Sex is everywhere around Michele, and nowhere is it aroused by anything like love. “Good in bed,” she says, is a phrase she never understood.
On top of all this, Michele is the daughter of a mass murderer who, when Michele was 10, slaughtered everyone in their neighborhood. With her father locked away, she too remains a figure of public hate, slandered at the time of the massacre (which culminated in setting fire to their home) by the police and press as a possible collaborator.
The twists and turns are enough to fill an especially daring season, or three, of a soap opera. And Huppert, her chin out, blazes through them all. Steely and impervious, the great French actress commands the film; no amount of kink can slow her down — and perhaps it gets her going. “Elle” will make quite a double bill one day with Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” another of her standouts. (She’s also very good in another upcoming film, Mia Hanson-Love’s “Things to Come.”)
Few could pull off the unapologetically demented nature of “Elle” like Verhoeven. Where other directors would pump the breaks, Verhoeven — more at home in genre than art house — speeds ahead, pausing only rarely to note, dryly, the mounting absurdity. The song that plays twice in Verhoeven’s film is Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In “Elle,” the more accurate phrase might be “Lust is life.”
“Elle,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language.” Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP