"It's sick... twisted, diseased." ~ Michèle Leblanc
Paul Verhoeven is quoted as saying that shooting Elle in Europe presented an opportunity to do "something very different to anything I've done before.” Certainly, on a surface level, it eschews the intricate blocking and slick tracking shots that underpinned his Hollywood films in favour of a more simple, hand held approach that subverts the potentially trashy elements in the material. This aesthetic, combined with the Parisian setting and casting of Isabelle Huppert, lends a patina of arthouse respectability to the proceedings but make no mistake this is at heart very much a film in Verhoeven's wheelhouse.
It seems to me that Elle is fundamentally a fusion of Basic Instinct in terms of narrative structure (troubled hero becomes wilfully involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a sexually deranged psychopath), and Showgirls in its characterisation of a strong-willed, overtly libidinous protagonist with a checkered past who refuses to play the role of victim. This thematic kinship would have been far more evident, I suspect, if the film had been produced in America with a bigger budget and a more famous lead actor, as per the original intention (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Sharon Stone were all considered but turned it down).
Much has been made of the controversial premise and the inevitable handwringing over its sexual politics (again, nothing new), but more intriguing, I think, is the role that Christianity plays in the narrative. It terms of screen time it’s a minor one, and yet significant. In his 2008 book, Jesus of Nazareth, a personal interpretation of the gospels based on research for a proposed film, Verhoeven downplays the supernatural aspect of Jesus Christ while extolling him as “revolutionary in the field of ethics”. This invites a re-evaluation of Verhoeven's oeuvre, particularly his seminal Hollywood phase in which the behaviour on display is anything but ethical. Perhaps that’s the point.
While Robocop’s Christian overtones have been well-documented (Murphy is crucified, resurrected and appears to walk on water), Showgirls too contains several allusions to Christian iconography (in one scene a neon sign proclaims that 'Jesus Is Coming Soon'), which is contrasted with animalistic passions - at various points Nomi Malone wears tiger or leopard print costumes (as one character remarks, "she prowls"). A lurid satire of the American Dream, Showgirls depicts America as a nation of ruthless, backstabbing strivers where sex is power and ethics are conspicuously absent. The only apparent redemption occurs in the form of selfless love between women, a theme that recurs in Elle, as does the animal motif - via Michèle's cat.
Elle is being marketed as a psychological thriller and this is apt since it’s ultimately about the human mind and its twisted ambiguities. In a key scene towards the end, Verhoeven's camera lingers over the bloodied brains oozing out of a battered head, as if to say This is what we are, mere flesh - animals prone to savage cruelty yet also capable of compassion and, perversely, sometimes both at the same time.