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Movie Review: Based on a French Novel, "Elle" Needed to Return to the Source 

click to enlarge Veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert takes on a heavy challenge in her morally complex portrayal of Michele Leblanc, a role that scared away many in Hollywood.

Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions

Veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert takes on a heavy challenge in her morally complex portrayal of Michele Leblanc, a role that scared away many in Hollywood.

The director Paul Verhoeven tried to make the new thriller “Elle” his first American film since 2000. But when Hollywood’s leading actresses read the script and realized they’d be attacked, assaulted, spit on, sodomized by a video game avatar and forced to become a grandmother, the answer was a swift “no” — across the board, reportedly.

Verhoeven had to go to France, where he found Isabelle Huppert, and a surprisingly warm reception to the controversial material in the film, based on “Oh …,” a 2012 novel by Philippe Djian. (It may have helped Verhoeven a little that Djian is French, and set his novel in Paris.)

That story centers on Michele Leblanc (Huppert), a successful businesswoman who owns a video-game development company. But in the film’s opening minutes, all we know is that she suffers a gruesome rape by a masked intruder, an event from which she recovers with remarkable poise. So much poise, we can’t tell really what happened or how she feels. Was it a fake? Is Michele in shock? She doesn’t go to the cops, she doesn’t break down. Instead, she offhandedly tells her friends over dinner, right before the champagne is uncorked. They are aghast. She throws up her hands. Pass the menus.

The reasons for Michele’s apparent disinterest in her condition are slowly parceled out. Verhoeven, the once-prolific creator of such American shock fests as “Robocop” and “Basic Instinct,” knows how to tell a good story, and knows how to do it by telling stories within the story, in the subtext and right there on the surface. Michele, for reasons gradually revealed, has been the object of attacks before, in all forms. And the rape isn’t the only insult the film hurls at her.

She gets hate messages. A woman purposefully dumps food on her at a restaurant. An anonymous hacker puts her picture over the digital face of a video game character, and has it sexually assaulted as well.

Again, there’s a specific reason Michele is targeted, but that reason feels like it has layers, with the sense that the film isn’t only exploring this single woman’s embattlement to be free and successful, but the struggle of women in general. Shortly after the rape, Michele’s subordinate at her company, a tall, blond and tattooed young artist, gauchely challenges her at a meeting — a challenge she accepts, and swiftly puts down.

Michele is no pushover, but everything in her life begins to feel like an act of aggression or defense, whether muted and implied, or overt. You wonder what keeps her going, what keeps her sane, what keeps her fighting back — especially as the story piles up on her. The memory returns again and again. Calamities come out of the woodwork.

This force of will and multilayered personality are two of Michele’s strengths as well as those of the film. Michele isn’t a simplified victim. Sometimes, in fact, she’s the victimizer, as when she launches an immature and covert toothpick attack on the younger, new girlfriend (Vimala Pons) of her ex-husband (Charles Berling). Slowly, the story peels back Michele’s layers. We really see her side, not what we might imagine but the true point of view: Life is war, with setbacks and rallies. The goal is victory, or at least survival.

Whenever a movie was originally intended to be made in America, it’s tempting to look at it in terms of what might have been. Would the subject matter be so explicit? Probably not. Would the film be so confident to divert into interpersonal relationships instead of hurrying along with the suspense? Absolutely unlikely. Would it be so frank and candid, developing even the most minor story elements with such nuance? Look around you and answer that one for yourself.

Perhaps with Verhoeven at the helm, “Elle” would have retained some of its balance in any production scenario. But at 130 minutes and with English subtitles to read, the French version will feel languid to viewers who want their thrillers to pick up the pace. Some might find it too horrific or unbelievable, or both.

For others, it’s refreshing to find a film that offers so much while taking the time to let a mystery unfold. Each scene feels necessary, especially when you finally get through the most harrowing moments and can look back on the work as a whole. (R) 130 min. S

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