Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is newly topical, as many reviewers will point out, thanks to Donald Trump and his accusers. But it'd be a shame to see the film reduced to the issue of rape. Thanks in large part to Isabelle Huppert’s superb performance in the lead, Elle transcends that subject to become a character study of a troubled woman, Michèle: strong, resilient, but damaged. Verhoeven’s avoidance of psychology feels very European; he lets the spectator decide if Michèle’s blasé attitude toward her assault is more than skin-deep, or if the acts of aggression she commits afterward, like crashing into her ex’s car, are signs of trauma from the rape or just examples, as critic Adam Nayman wrote, of Verhoeven using the notion that everyone’s an asshole as a jumping-off point.

As the film progresses, Michèle gets involved in a cat-and-mouse game with her rapist, but it’s anyone’s guess how much she’s in control. Huppert always retains her dignity, even when Michèle is put in the most degrading circumstances. Like every Verhoeven film, Elle is bound to be misunderstood and to stir up controversy, but it’s a welcome return, after ten years between features, from one of cinema’s greatest provocateurs. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is greeting its release with a comprehensive Verhoeven retrospective, starting November 9th.

Steven Erickson: Elle reminded me quite a bit of Claude Chabrol. Do you feel that with this film, you’re inhabiting the European art film in the way you inhabited the American genre film with Robocop and Total Recall?

Paul Verhoeven: I didn’t want to do that. It happened to me because my original idea was to make an American movie. I had an American screenwriter, and we translated a French novel into English. Then we wrote an American script that was situated in an American city. There was no A-level American actress that wanted to do it. After a few months of searching, we couldn’t find financial partners either. So we decided to go back to Paris and re-translate it back to French. Making a French movie was not what I planned. I was forced to make it work. I’m European myself—I’m from Holland. I know French culture, having spent a year in Paris when I was seventeen. But I never set out to make a French movie. It became French by coincidence. To make it work I had to make it into a French movie.

Erickson: Was Isabelle Huppert your first choice?

Verhoeven: There was no other choice possible, certainly in retrospect. Isabelle Huppert wanted to do the movie before I had read the book. She had called the writer of the book and the producer, Saïd Ben Saïd. I think they discussed me being the director at that time, but it was only because we wanted to make it in America that we didn’t go that route. Now, when we failed to do it as an American movie, and went back to Paris, Saïd immediately called Huppert. Saïd and I decided that this movie should be in English, at first, and set in Chicago. We weren’t wrong, but Americans were all afraid of the content and thought it was bad for their career.

Erickson: Some of your films have been somewhat ahead of their time: Starship Troopers predicted the Iraq War. With sexual assault in the news now, Elle seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist.

Verhoeven: I think so. I agree with that, but certainly as to the United States, it’s weird that the film comes out after two or three weeks of revelations about sexual harassment in the election. A few months ago, it wasn’t really connected to politics. Because of that coincidence, people are asking me 'How do you see it in connection to the election?' There’s no direct connection. When we made the movie, we couldn’t have known about it. You just said, 'It’s the right moment.' Let’s see how it functions over the next few weeks.

Erickson: Well, I got into an argument with someone on social media who said that it presented rape as rough sex.

Verhoeven: That could only mean that, in a strange way, Isabelle Huppert’s character enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her rapist. But that’s only her character. To me, this movie says nothing about the discourse of rape. That’s not what it is about. It’s about a woman refusing to be the victim of violence and not letting it dominate her life. Ultimately, you could argue that she’s able to turn the tables.

Erickson: To me, it’s actually a feminist film because it presents a woman who is raped without presenting her as a helpless victim. She has a lot of problems in life, but they’re not all due to her rape, and she’s not completely defined by the fact that she was raped.

Verhoeven: She’s defined by many other things, her relationship to many other people. A lot of the movie is not about her rape. For her, her relationships to her mother and son are as important as the rape. We spend a lot of time not talking about it. Only about thirty percent is about the rape.

ELLE
Photo by Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Erickson: The TV show Game of Thrones reminds me a lot of your film Flesh and Blood. Have you ever thought about pitching American cable networks about creating a series? They’ve become a lot more permissive over the past decade.

Verhoeven: No. The only opportunity I had was a British writer who pitched me a TV series about a woman, Madame Tussaud, during the French Revolution. That wasn’t even for American TV. No one has come to me with a plan for doing something for cable. If someone had a splendid idea, I would go with him. In the U.S., I want someone to come to me with an idea. I’m really not American. I think that if you look at the movies I made in the U.S., they were always movies I made from other people’s scripts. I always felt that I was unable to be American enough to create American stories. I could shoot them, but they had to come from somewhere else. I can do it in Europe. I can invent things, but I have the feeling I’m a bit cruder in the U.S. I can put my personal signature on other people’s stories. Because I was a European looking with full amazement at American TV, you can feel my amusement in Robocop. I pushed it because I was so astonished at American news. I realized I was in a different country. A lot of the scenes in Robocop came from my astonishment at American television culture. It was inspiring but idiotic. The exaggerations in Robocop have a lot to do with me being so amazed.

Erickson: Strangely, the Brazilian director José Padilha, who started off making a quite good documentary, couldn’t bring an interesting perspective to the Robocop remake.

Verhoeven: I think he made a terrible mistake in the remake by leaving Robocop’s brain intact. In the [Edward] Neumeier script, he’s reprogrammed, although elements are left intact. He is not aware of his loss, that he doesn’t have arms and legs anymore. In the new one, everything is extremely heavy and relatively realistic. You lose the beauty of those projects.

Erickson: It was also a really sanitized depiction of violence. Your films are very violent, but there’s always consequences to the violence, even when it’s played for humor. In the Robocop remake, it’s PG-13, but you see a hundred people get shot with no blood flying.

Verhoeven: That’s the studio wanting to make money. R-rated movies are excluded because they limit the audience. The capitalist system completely dominates the American film industry. It’s all about the bottom line. Any argument about filmmaking or art is lost. Even the art of meaning is lost. There’s no meaning to American cinema anymore. The only meaning is money. It’s reduced to that, and it’s horrible. Capitalism can also accept there are other values than money, but it looks like studios can only look at movies for pure profit. That’s why the R rating is gone. Then you get more people, but you sacrifice everything that is edgy or sexual. You sacrifice anything that might offend people. Now if you go to a multiplex, everything is PG-13.

Erickson: On the other hand, do you feel like—in the U.S., at least—the fact that Black Book and Elle are subtitled gives you some kind of protection? I can’t imagine a woman getting shit dumped on her [as happens in Black Book] in a Hollywood film.

Verhoeven: No, probably not, although strangely enough, that scene has a historical background. It all comes from something that happened in Dutch prisons, after the war, to collaborators. Other things are possible. You can still express yourself in American filmmaking. Look at The Big Short, which I think is a really well-made movie. It’s still interesting and innovative. It’s still possible to make good American movies, and there’s an enormous amount of talent, but it’s not used in the maximum way.

Erickson: Well, there’s an element of provocation that your Hollywood films had, which seems to have completely vanished.

Verhoeven: It might be offensive, so fewer people will come. It’s explicable. I don’t think things will stay that way. The balance might shift. Over the past ten or fifteen years, it’s been getting blander and blander. Provocation is excluded. To me, it’s nothing more than showing the world as it is. Now, there’s no realism used in all these comic book movies.

Erickson: When I interviewed Michael Haneke, I asked him if he thought about coming to the U.S. to do a low-budget horror film, which he could use to express his thoughts about violence. He very quickly said, 'No!'

Verhoeven: He did a version of Funny Games in the U.S., but he never came back. I’m different. I’m a big fan of his work. It’s done in a way that I would never be able to do. I’m much more inclined to do American movies, whatever it is. If they offered me a book like The Shining, I would immediately say yes. I would love to do a clever horror film.