Ever the provocateur, Paul Verhoeven opens his latest film Elle -- his first to be made in France and possibly not the last -- with the sound of what seems to be a violent sexual assault and then reveals it to be just that. Moreover, he replays the incident twice more in the film's first half-hour, first exactly as protagonist Michèle Leblanc (the ever-fearless Isabelle Huppert) remembers it happening, and then as she fantasizes about what she would have done had she been able to turn the tables on her attacker. (In short: She caves in his skull and beats his head to a bloody pulp.) In none of these scenarios does Michèle get to learn the identity of the black-clad prowler by removing his form-fitting hood, so she's just as much in the dark about it as the viewer, but she has some ideas and more than a few enemies.
David Birke's screenplay, based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian, is chock full of twists and turns I wouldn't dream of spoiling in this space. I will say that Michèle has what she considers a legitimate reason for not going to the police (the details of which are teased out over a number of scenes until they can no longer be hinted at) and carries on as if nothing happened to such an alarming degree that she can casually mention over dinner with her business partner (with whom she runs a video game company) and their husbands that she was raped in her home in broad daylight. Even more abnormal is the way she can continue carrying on an affair with her partner's husband and begins taking an interest in her hunky neighbor, who gets invited along with his wife and everyone else in Michèle's messy life to the Christmas party she hastily throws together so she can see how many sparks will fly between them. (Suffice it to say, there are plenty. I haven't even mentioned Michèle's vain mother and her absurdly younger fiancé or her pliable son and the psycho girlfriend he moves in with when she gets pregnant.)
All the while, Michèle deals with the day-to-day operations of running her company, which has reached a critical stage in the development of its latest game, and fields disturbing messages from her assailant, who appears to be just as obsessed with her as she's incapable of putting him out of her mind. Then again, I suppose that's a little hard to do when someone wants you to think they could return at any moment and get you all over again. In Michèle's world -- and Verhoeven's when you get right down to it -- there really is no such thing as a safe space.