‘Elle’: Nasty yet elegant French thriller features Isabelle Huppert at her best

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle in "Elle." : Guy Ferrandis-SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Elle” is an elegant, nasty piece of work, the kind of twisty, handsomely produced, nominally erotic thriller that plays almost as a parody of French films that mistake pathological disengagement for stylish savoir faire.

This adaptation of a Philippe Djian novel is directed by Paul Verhoeven, which is its first tell. As sleek and sophisticated as the film is (or pretends to be), it’s essentially pulp dressed up in couture threads: a ready-made mix of sex, violence and teasingly provocative atmosphere that’s right up the alley of the man who gave us “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.”

If this all sounds negative, that’s because “Elle” is a tough movie to like, but not to admire, albeit from a distance. It’s certainly engrossing, keeping viewers continually off-balance and unsure of their own alternately outraged or seduced responses.

The movie starts in the dark, with just the noise of breaking glass and china and a woman’s desperate-sounding moans. The first shot is of the impassive face of her cat, haughtily observing what turns out to be a brutal rape committed by a ski-masked stranger who looks like he just jumped out of a bad piece of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fan-fic.

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The victim, it turns out, is Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), who, as “Elle” unfolds, adamantly refuses the title of victim. The head of a video-game company that specializes in depictions of women being brutalized, she at one point demands that a designer make the convulsions of a woman being attacked in one of her games “more orgasmic.”

So far, so problematic in a film that hinges on questions, not just about the identity of Michèle’s rapist, but about her own complicity – and maybe even pleasure – in the crime, and her unwillingness to take her case to legal authorities. A hint lies in the way she runs her business: She’s better with narrative than interface, suggesting that controlling her own story is far more important to Michèle than the flesh-and-blood people who glide in and out of her life.

Beautifully made with exquisite taste and eye for detail, “Elle” is pretty, but it can’t be described as a pleasure to watch. Its use of sexual violence, both as a narrative device and philosophical fulcrum, is too opportunistic, even cynical, not to give viewers a case of the squirms. And Michèle’s contradictions – as well as the salient character traits of her neighbors, friends, co-workers, ex-husband and son – feel less organic than conveniently manufactured for the sake of suspense and scoring points about gender expectations.

Although “Elle” is nominally about Michèle, regarded through another lens, it’s just as much about the men in her life, and how they go about performing various versions of masculinity, whether it’s the knight in shining armor, the brutal victimizer, the gigolo or the henpecked, passive-aggressive Peter Pan. They’re all coolly observed by a woman who seems skeptical of all of it, especially when she arms herself with pepper spray and a medieval-looking ax.

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“Elle” would be too clever by half – not to mention fatally offensive – were it not for Huppert, who in her portrayal of Michèle owns the movie from its opening moments to its bizarre, but not entirely surprising, denouement. Chic, severe, ferociously focused throughout a performance that demands a transparent display of violently conflicting emotions, Huppert is the best and maybe the only reason to see “Elle,” or to believe that it possesses something of value beyond pseudo-smart S&M titillation. She imbues Michèle with a fascinating roux of chilly reserve and confounding sympathy, elevating a movie that could otherwise be reduced to exploitative dreck.

It’s characteristic of the film’s curious moral universe that the actress at its center inspires nothing but allegiance, no matter how troubling her character’s behavior becomes. I reserve the right to have misgivings about the movie she’s in, but for now there can be no doubt: I’m with her.

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and obscenity. In French with subtitles. 131 minutes.

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Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.