The rape-revenge movies of the '70s followed a fairly standard formula.
In the wake of a gruesome rape, the victim would rehabilitate herself and then prepare to take vengeance on her attacker and just about any other man who treated women poorly.
A veritable bloodbath would ensue.
Elle, the new psychological thriller from always-controversial director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct) follows that formula — to an extent.
The movie opens with a grisly rape scene. As far as the "revenge" goes, viewers must wait nearly until the movie's end for any kind of payback.
Isabelle Huppert (Amour), who plays the film's central character, Michele Leblanc, delivers a compelling performance as a woman profoundly damaged by her murderous father (the guy went on a rampage, killing men, women and children — and even animals — when she was a child). But the movie's main message is a mixed one likely to leave viewers perplexed.
Based on the 2012 Philippe Djian novel Oh..., the film commences with a graphic scene in which a masked assailant breaks into Michele's home and throws her to the ground. Despite Michele's struggles, the guy forces himself upon her.
In the wake of the crime, Michele takes herself to the hospital where she asks the doctor to test her for sexually transmitted diseases. Once released, she carries on as if nothing happened, though her attacker taunts her with text messages. When she announces during a dinner out with her friends that she was raped, one of them even remarks later about how odd it is that she simply "soldiers on" in its aftermath.
As the film progresses, we learn more about what compels the enigmatic Michele, a woman who refuses to talk to her imprisoned father and maintains a difficult relationship with her mother. The head of a successful video game company, Michele ironically promotes pushing the limits of the graphic sex and violence in the games her employees develop. In the wake of her rape, she becomes even more insistent on the matter.
Separated from her husband, she grows jealous of his new girlfriend, a young yoga teacher. And she has trouble convincing her son that his girlfriend isn't the right woman for him. All the while, she's carrying on an affair with her best friend's husband, Robert. Her value system is a mess.
Verhoeven has said the movie's central theme revolves around female empowerment. But given the way the "revenge" takes place in such a roundabout manner at the movie's conclusion, that message is muddled at best.
In some ways, Elle might function as the art house update of the rape revenge flick; but we prefer the visceral (and much more straightforward) take on the subject matter offered up by cult classics such as I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45.