Elle is one of the most powerful, unique, and challenging films of the year. A powerhouse return by Dutch master Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct), the film’s dark and provocative mood is a testament to his skills as populist storyteller, provocateur, and genuine artist.
In the first of two conversations Dork Shelf spoke to the highly intelligent and eloquent filmmaker about the fits and starts that occurred bringing Elle to screen, including an abortive attempt to resituate the near definitively-French tale to American shores, only to come back again to where it all started.
This film once again showcases the remarkable achievement of your recent cinema, perfectly balancing between the lessons you learned in Hollywood while crafting a highly European, sophisticated film. Is Elle in some ways the culmination of your craft?
Paul Verhoeven: I hope not! Then I’d have to say I’m done! [laughs] I’m hoping there will be other stuff that will extend beyond what I’ve done this year.
After the American movie Hollow Man I felt a little depressed because of what I could do in the US. The last 10 years I’ve concentrated on Europe because I could do more of what I wanted there. As a director you have much more power in Europe, you can exactly do what you want, not what the studio wants, especially in France of course, but also in Holland. You have more freedom, and I can do things that are closer to me than doing the next science fiction movie.
That doesn’t mean I would not make movies in the United States anymore! In fact, I’m trying already for years to do that. But the projects that I like to do are still not financed, and the other ones that are sent to me I don’t like.
Yet Elle started out as wanting to be an American-set film…
PV: The novel is French, and I read it at such. The producer Saïd Ben Saïd, who has worked with DePalma, Polanski, Cronenberg, Walter Hill, he thought this would be an American movie. We immediately translated the book into English and I went to an American script writer, David Birke, that I knew from another project that’s still not made, and we wrote it as movie that was situated somewhere in North America – Seattle, Boston, Chicago, something like that. Then we found out that was it not only impossible to find American co-producers, but much more importantly to the actresses that we approached they didn’t want to do it! It’s really that the American actresses that we approached, all A-list, were a definite “no”, not even a “let’s talk about it”.
Why do you think it is?
PV: Well, it’s the third act of the movie. If it would have been a revenge movie it wouldn’t have been a problem. It’s not a revenge movie, although it’s described that way sometimes, but it’s not of course. It’s stepping over and past that in fact. It’s a different kind of movie, about a woman who refuses to be a victim, to not allow her life to be influenced by something horrible that happened to her.
Equally, the film seems to have no concession either to genre conventions or to expected forms of catharsis.
PV: The film is refusing to choose genre. That was already in the novel a little bit, and we used the structure in the screenplay and shot it that way being aware that it was not, say, only a movie about a woman that gets raped and wants to find out who did it. The book was a study of character and the relationships she has in the movie – mother, father, son, best friend, secret lover, ex-husband. You’re talking about a movie about relationships that are are not only to express her character, they’re to express the characters of the other people. The construction was such that if you were to put it in the genre of thriller you’d really diminish everything else. For me the attraction was not so much to do a thriller, I’d done so in Basic Instinct, but to use all these other things around her that are more important that the thriller aspect. I was aware I was balancing that.
What was your first reaction when you read the novel?
PV: The novel was sent to me by the producer, and I hadn’t met him – I knew the movies that he’d made. He sent it and said do you want to do this? It was that simple. I read it immediately, called him, and said it’s fine. That was around Berlin 2014. The biggest delay was trying to make it an American movie! It’s a very French book, about French people in Paris, there’s a certain bourgeois to translate into an American idiom was really a lot of work. Ultimately we went back to what it was before, so we lost four months on that.
The moment that Saïd called me and said we’re on the wrong road, it’s impossible to do in the U.S., from that moment we were shooting in three or four months.
How do you think Elle differs from some of your other famous femme fatales?
PV: If you look at Sharon Stone [in Basic Instinct], of course, she’s not a victim! [laughs] That’s a big difference – the positive aspects of Stone’s character are few, character-wise. While I admire her performance because it’s so powerful, and it’s even charming, it’s not positive. Isabelle [Huppert] is playing a character that’s even more difficult perhaps. It’s also not what you’d say she’s a protagonist that takes you into the movie, you’re looking a little askew at her. That aspect was filled in by Isabelle perfectly.
Was she your first choice for this role?
PV: Of course! Basically I was her first choice. She read the book, I was not not involved yet, she called the writer, she called the producer, and said I want to do this movie. They’d been discussing it and brought up my name. Then what happens of course is that somehow we went into the direction of an American movie when I came to the project it was presented to me as this is probably an American movie. So when this all fell apart, this American adventure, there was no doubt for Isabelle. When Saïd called me to say it wasn’t an American film five minutes later he called Isabelle Huppert.
One fascinating aspect is how you changed her profession to video game developer.
PV: That was really for finding a career that was more visual. My daughter invented that.
It ties beautifully to discussions of gender, particularly after the scandals of gamergate.
PV: That was a pleasant surprise. In the novel she’s the CEO of a writers collective for TV and film which was not a very visual profession, only talking about scripts. When I was at dinner with my family then I put that problem on the table about whether we should give her another profession, and my youngest daughter is a painter said, yeah, you should make her a CEO of a video game company. I didn’t know much about video games, at all.
One way the film may uncharitably be read is that it’s rape revenge without the revenge. Are you concerned about being misread?
PV: I cannot help that. I would never do it differently. It’s not that she accepts rape – you could say the whole film is about her refusing rape in the first place, refusing to be a victim. You could argue revenge comes in anyone via divine punishment – it’s really old testament at the end, an eye for an eye. In the middle of the third act what she does after she finds out she switches to New Testament – love thy enemy. Jesus said that, right? Jesus didn’t say love thy neighbour, that’s normal, he said love your enemy.
What movies have you seen the most?
PV: Lawrence of Arabia, La Dolce Vita, North by Northwest or Vertigo, La Règle du jeu, Belle de Jour.
Did you go back to Belle specifically for Elle?
PV: Yeah, I studied that… Just like I go back again and again to certain kind of music.
PV: Stravinsky and David Bowie.
Beatles vs. Stones?