Interview

Misogynist or feminist? The murky world of director Paul Verhoeven

‘I’ve never been been afraid to tackle subject matter that is rather unusual’: the subversive Dutch cineaste discusses his unsettling new ‘rape revenge comedy’ Elle

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

The enticingly subversive films of Paul Verhoeven were very tempting to me as a schoolboy. When I hit 14, the Dutch director released RoboCop and the excitement among me and my friends at catching two hours of unmitigated ultra-violence reached fever pitch. He did not disappoint.

That was in 1988 and it was interesting later on to read several newspaper articles accusing Verhoeven of having made a fascistic screed in favour of zero-tolerance law enforcement. This was not something any of us had considered up to that point, but satire, yes, even back then we had an inkling of what that was and RoboCop seemed to fit the bill nicely. Verhoeven’s latest movie Elle (reviewed by Deborah Ross last week) shows the old powers haven’t waned.

If anything his subversiveness has grown more acute, and harder to read. Faithfully adapted from a novel by Frenchman Philippe Djian, Elle stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle, a successful businesswoman who is raped by a masked intruder after he forces his way into her home. Her immediate reaction is curious to say the least. Instead of calling the police, she calmly brushes up some broken china, takes a bubble bath and orders sushi to share with her adult son, who is coming round to dinner.

As Verhoeven tells it, his original plan had been to make Elle as an American movie. The original screenplay adaptation of Djian’s novel Oh… was even written in English. But this avenue was ruled out when all of the American actresses Verhoeven approached to play Michèle turned him down flat. ‘The reason wasn’t so much because of the rape scenario,’ says the 78-year-old director, ‘but more because in the third act of the movie we go in a surprising direction after Michèle finds out the identity of her rapist.’

‘Surprising’ is one way to put it. Misogynistic is another, which is how Melanie McDonagh has described it in The Spectator online. If Elle had been an American movie, as opposed to a French-made one, then no doubt Michèle’s part would have been rewritten as some kind of avenging angel in a yellow jumpsuit. That the movie unfolds in a far less predictable fashion as a sort of twisted love story, albeit with a bloody dénouement, feeds into Verhoeven’s belief that ‘the secret of art is that it should be ambiguous’.

Later in the movie we find out that the reason Michèle has failed to call the police is that in her youth she suffered an enormous amount of unwanted publicity as the daughter of a mass murderer serving a life sentence in prison. ‘For me Elle is really about a strong woman who is refusing to become a victim after being victimised enough in her life,’ says Verhoeven.


His statement leaves a slightly bitter taste. Doesn’t the fact that Michèle falls for her assailant make her just as much a victim of her rape as if she were hell-bent on revenge? Again, with Verhoeven ‘art’ seems to have its own set of ephemeral rules.

‘Isabelle has said the film can almost be seen as a fairytale,’ he says. ‘Is it really possible in life that somebody would do what she does? Perhaps not, but artistically, apparently yes. Of course it’s me talking but I feel that it works.’

His leading lady is not about to disagree. ‘It’s true that my character is attracted by this man and the violent way he treats her,’ says Huppert, who received a best actress nomination at this year’s Oscars. ‘Perhaps she has a very contradictory attitude to her treatment because she’s the daughter of a violent man and she’s based her identity on the memory of the violent crime her father committed.’

Murky stuff, but one thing that we can be sure of is that Verhoeven has long been fascinated by the idea of rape both from the perspective of the victim and victimiser. The first instance of this was Spetters (1980), a Dutch film from early in Verhoeven’s career, in which a young homosexual is gang-raped by a group of bikers. Brutal rape scenes involving women followed in his first English-language movie Flesh + Blood (1985), which was set during medieval times, and Showgirls (1995), a sorely underrated trawl through Las Vegas’s fleshpots.

What’s most unsettling about Elle is that while we get chapter and verse on what makes Michèle tick, her tormentor/lover remains a cipher. All we know is that the only way he can get his rocks off is by assaulting women. How he arrived at this impasse in his life is left unanswered. Of course there is no justification for his behaviour, but the fact that Verhoeven depicts him as he does gives Elle the flavour of an exploitation movie in a tricked-up package.

‘Returning to this theme of rape is of course a choice,’ says Verhoeven. ‘Though I didn’t create these scenes, they were already in the scripts, I feel that the harshness of rape is more part of our lives than we care to acknowledge. As far as I know, an average of 1,900 rapes are committed per day in the United States. It is so thoroughly suppressed because we have a hard time acknowledging this continuous aggression, mostly from the male side, towards females and sometimes males.’

Rightly or not, Verhoeven takes a certain pride in his prowess as a taboo-breaker. ‘I’ve never been afraid to tackle subject matter that is rather unusual,’ he says. ‘I have always made my own choices where I could express something of myself. If that happens to be controversial or politically incorrect I never took notice of that.’

One of the most fascinating aspects of Elle is the way all the male characters in the film are a bunch of sour-faced losers. Michèle’s ex-husband is a failed writer, her lover likes to be wanked into a bin and her son struggles to hold down a job in a fast-food restaurant. ‘It’s a film where the power of all the male characters has come undone,’ says Huppert. It is somewhat surprising, given this observation, to discover that Ingmar Bergman has had a considerable influence on Verhoeven.

‘If you look at his movies there is a lot of that too — the females are always ahead of the males,’ Verhoeven says. ‘I’m married to a strong woman and my [two] daughters are like that.’

Since the release of Elle the director says that his reputation as a misogynist has even taken a hit. ‘Now I’m accused of being a feminist,’ he says. ‘More seriously, though, of course I am not a misogynist. I love women. It’s not something I can take seriously.’

Elle is in cinemas now.

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