Interview | Paul Verhoeven on the Controversies of ‘Elle’

Paul Verhoeven has been challenging our expectations for decades. The Dutch filmmaker made a name for himself on the international scene with provocative thrillers and intriguing dramas like The 4th Man and Soldier of Orange, and became one of the few art house filmmakers to make the transition to successful big budget blockbusters with his distinctive and subversive voice intact. RoboCop was a defiant middle finger in the face of Reagan era politics and rampant capitalism. Total Recall exploded the very concept of the audience’s collective Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasies, positing that the whole concept of dreaming you were an action hero was absurd and arguably psychotic. (And yes, he also directed Showgirls, but even that notorious bomb has a dedicated cult following.)

This week, Paul Verhoeven returns with another masterpiece. Elle is a hilarious, serious, frightening and empowering story of a successful executive named Michèle LeBlanc, played with absolute dynamism by Isabelle Huppert, who in the film’s first moments is raped in her house. Verhoeven’s film, adapted from the novel Oh… by Philipe Djian, then follows her throughout her day as she decides not to become a victim. It’s a rich and complicated work that challenges the audience’s expectations about cinema and feminism, and of course he wasn’t afraid to tackle the topic one bit.

I sat down with Paul Verhoeven the day after Elle screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, to talk about the film’s themes, the adaptation, the casting of Isabelle Huppert and – ultimately – the ending of Total Recall, which it turns out is more complicated than we all previously thought.

SPOILER ALERT: We do discuss some important later plot points from Elle, and of course we talk about that ending from Total Recall.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Crave: So what attracted you to the lighthearted, delightful subject material of Elle…?

Paul Verhoeven: That’s a quote!

Sure, go ahead and use that.

Yeah, mostly I think that it was something that I’d never done before. I mean the thriller aspect, yes, I did: Basic Instinct is a thriller and The 4th Man partially is, so that was not so new for me. But let’s say, the enormous importance of the other characters. The whole social environment of her, there’s something like that, that’s seen in the most pleasant way during the Christmas party where all these people, you know already enough about their backgrounds to realize how they are and how they treat each other. To do something like that. Things that Woody Allen and Barry Levinson have done. But I mean, and then to contrast that with the really harsh, basically, violence of the rape.

It’s weird. I thought that if you took out the whole subplot of the father and the horrifying sexual assault, you have a light comedy on your hands.

Mmm-hmm. But you would not have that character. I mean the character basically makes this scene interesting of course. Her character. That character that is defined in the beginning by, in fact, a woman on the floor. You don’t see the rape in the beginning in it, you see the aftermath of the rape. You hear it but you don’t see it. Then you see her on the floor, then she comes up a little bit, and then next shot, you cut to all the things that are broken as she basically is collecting them and throwing them in the bucket.

She’s just going about her day at that point…

She does that, boom, then she goes into the bath. There is blood coming out of her vagina. She does the foam like that [brushes away the foam], it’s gone. And then she orders sushi. Now that’s character!

That is really what I thought was so interesting. Of course it’s not done exactly like that in the novel but that’s how David Birke and I felt that we, taking all the elements that we knew about her that [Philippe] Djian writes as completely disassociative; [a] little information here, next page there, so you have to put it together. You make scenes. But I felt to construct that character, [she’s] constructed in two, three minutes. I thought to have that character throughout the movie, I think all the relationships she has are really tense. And I would say because it is that character it’s funny. If she would have been quote-unquote normal I don’t think you would be smiling. It’s her confrontational attitude about everything.

Elle Isabelle Huppert

It’s interesting, this film is being discussed as a “rape-and-revenge” movie, which is its own genre, and yet I watched it and I realized that this is not that, at all.

No, it’s not, no.

This movie asks you to accept a lot of different contradictions.

Sure.

I admired that, that you can experience this horrible thing and then move on. Or that you can sleep with your best friend’s husband and still manage to salvage that relationship.

Yes, it happens in life. It’s life. These things happen of course. Let’s say a rape on the one side, and sleeping with your husband of your best friend, basically. In real life these are things that are happening. So I think I didn’t want it to be “genre.” I didn’t want it to be a “rape-revenge” at all. In fact there is no reason to even look at it that way because there is a revenge, you could say, but it’s divine punishment, huh?

Yeah, it’s not the focus of the film.

Absolutely not! More her dealing with a violent act and not wanting to be a victim. Even as she explains to her friends, at the table in the restaurant, that she has been raped. “I think I’ve been raped,” in fact. But of course we know she’s been raped. The moment that they start to show compassion she closes, yeah? She doesn’t want to be seen [as a victim] and she doesn’t want to be a victim.

She refuses to a victim throughout the movie. She refuses to be a victim and I think that has a lot to do with what happened in the past, of course. That’s my interpretation. That’s why basically you get a whole documentary about her father. You know what happened when she was ten. I think the movie is not saying what happened then is now causing this, you know. Her character is given in the beginning, later you might explain it by finding her background, but the character is already established before that, and we get some information that might explain – if you want to – why she is that way.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s a sensitive topic, the subject of the film, sexual assault. Was that a concern while you were filming?

No.

No?

It happens doesn’t it?

True.

I mean, I think statistically in the United States there’s 1,900 sexual assaults a day.

I don’t have the figures in front of me…

I have them. I checked them. [Editor’s Note: Here are those figures, according to RAINN. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem]

Okay.

Yeah, but a woman gets sexually assaulted every minute in the United States. That is four or five or ten times more car accidents or shootings. So I don’t know why the subject would be controversial. It happens all the time! If something is so dominant in society, why would you it be controversial to talk about it and see somebody that found a way to overcome it? So I think I never understood, really, why it would be so controversial because I mean, interestingly enough, in general basically female journalists are very positive.

About the film? 

Yeah. So the film must hit something that basically is through.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Do you feel that the film’s personality changed when you moved it, from your original plan to set it in America, to setting it in France? Do you feel it changed the tone?

No, because it went back to the novel [which was set in France]. So it’s a French novel and so we had in our heads, in the beginning, Saïd Ben Saïd the producer and I, that it should be an American movie because you know that Saïd makes lots of English-spoken movies. He worked with [Roman] Polanski on Carnage, he worked with Brian De Palma on Passion, he did Maps of the Stars with Cronenberg, and he just did the movie with Walter Hill [(Re) Assignment]. So it was natural, me being half-American, to make the movie in English.

We did it. We translated the book immediately into English and I went to an American scriptwriter. So we were thinking that we would make an American movie. Then basically that fell apart because no actress in the United States of any name wanted to do it. So then basically we decided this doesn’t work, then by coincidence or whatever we went to France. We said, okay, then we go back to what was there anyhow.

So when we moved it from France to the United States, in the script, we changed all the cultural parameters of course. It’s a different country isn’t it, the U.S.? So now we went back. It’s not that we went to something that was not there that we had to find out, it was already there in the book. So we just went back to the original version, everything that we had changed for the American version. Now, reading the book, you can basically say “This suburb looks like that and looks like that,” so it was that we had to reinvent the movie. We went back to what it was from the beginning.

I think what I meant was, if you had made it in America, would it have come out – even if everything else had been the same, ignoring the little differences and little details – would it have felt like a different film because of the cultural context?

Sure, completely, and not only that it’s about the protagonist. Isabelle Huppert makes something very different from whatever I can imagine in the United States, you know? I think, in some way, you could really say we were saved by grace that we didn’t do it as an American movie because now, looking at what we got with Isabelle, I cannot imagine that we would have gotten that. I think the film would have been much more, if the want to use the word, controversial if it would have been an American.

But I think the authenticity of Isabelle… and Isabelle wanted to do this movie from the very beginning. She had already called the writer of the book [and] the producer Saïd before I was even there. But Saïd and I, we thought it wasn’t an American movie so we cannot do it with Isabelle. It has to be an American. [Laughs.] Then basically when we saw, not our mistake but our misjudgment about American enthusiasm, we went back to Isabelle because she wanted to do it anyhow.

But now, seeing what she did for the movie, I think she protects the movie because she’s authentic. Even if you look at her in a somewhat alienated way – and she’s not always vey sympathetic, in fact she can be very harsh in the movie – but Isabelle’s acting is authentic. It’s really a character. I think that gives her a much more feeling of authenticity. Yeah, this character could do this. So I think yes, if it would have been American it would have been a completely different movie and I think you would have felt something completely different seeing it.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

There is a line in the movie that I’ve been thinking about ever since I saw it. I’m going to paraphrase because I’m saying it in English: “Shame never stopped anybody from doing anything.” That is a fascinating concept and I don’t think anyone really talks about it.

She says it [to] her best friend that she’s basically betraying, of course, at that point, who talks about shame. She was sniffing around if her husband had an affair in that scene. But she’s talking about herself, as you’re saying. “All the shame that I feel, what I’m doing to you by fucking your husband, it didn’t prevent me from doing it in the first place.”

I wonder sometimes if we’d have any stories if the opposite was true. So many people in your films, and anyone else’s, do things that they know are wrong. I hear stories from actors who say that characters don’t judge themselves, but I think they do.

I think, if I look at myself, I see that shame and feeling bad about it doesn’t prevent me to do things. I’ve done that. And then basically later you say, well, you know, there was not so great. That’s what the other girl says [in Elle], that was really bad, what you did. I think the statement is true. Even if you feel ashamed, the desire to do it is so strong… that’s what I mean, the desire to do it is so stronger than the shame that it brings with itself.

A while ago you made Black Book, and now you’ve made Elle, and these are more realistic dramas than a lot of the films that a lot of Americans know you from.

Right.

Do you miss working on that scale, or is this entirely a superior experience?

What scale? The American scale?

TriStar Pictures

TriStar Pictures

The American big budget, having that tapestry to play with. Do you miss that at all?

No, because I come from… I made six, seven movies in Holland before I came to the United States, that are all realistic and had nothing to do with science-fiction. […] People are really interacting and whatever, in war, perhaps like in Soldier of Orange and Black Book. But no, I don’t miss it.

But if the opportunity would present itself to do another movie in the United States, via science fiction… original science fiction, not what we have now which is basically repeating, repeating, repeating, I wouldn’t do that. But if there would be, let’s say, an innovative script? A new Philip Dick? If that would be there then I would do that because I am not against science fiction. I’m against science fiction that I feel I’ve seen enough [of], you know? For me it’s like the same. Every movie feels more or less the same. There’s more special effects than anything else.

And so I’m disappointed in the development of science-fiction movies, yeah, but Blade Runner and even Total Recall, though it was Arnold [Schwarzenegger], has an interesting philosophical point of view. It’s about something. It is not really completely free yet, it’s really about whether it’s a dream or not, and alternative realities. Total Recall doesn’t say whether it’s reality or it is a dream, you know? It’s really saying there’s this reality and there’s that reality, and both exist at the same time. Because you look at Total Recall there is never a preference, let’s say, taken by me or the scriptwriter, to say this is really what he dreams about and this is the truth.

So the ongoing debate about whether or not Total Recall is a dream, you think they both exist simultaneously?

I wanted it to be that way.

I have lost bets over this. 

No, no, no, because I felt that it was – if you want to use a very big word – post-modern. I felt that basically I should not say ‘This is true, and this not true.’ I wanted – and we worked with Gary Goldman on that, not the original writers – [and we] worked very hard to make both consistent, and that both would be true. And I think we succeeded very well. So I think of course there is no solution. Hey, it’s both true. So I thought, two realities; that it was innovative in movie language at least, to a certain degree, that there would be two realities and there is no choice.

You said “even though it’s Arnold” but I thought that contributed to the film’s cleverness. When we dream, we fantasize – especially back then – we dreamt about being in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Even that, yeah. Sure. But Arnold made it lighter because of course the whole story’s a little bit nonsense. Because with Arnold we got, from the beginning, the protection of [being] a bit comic book, and I think Arnold is bigger than life. He’s not a normal actor, of course. It’s a charismatic personality basically out of a comic book, nearly, what he played at that time.

I felt that by doing that – and it’s not that I chose Arnold, Arnold was chosen before me when Mario Kassar of Carolco set up the movie, it was Arnold behind the whole movie. Arnold really seduced Mario Kassar to buy this script from Dino De Laurentiis in Australia, who had gone kind of bankrupt. And Arnold was the one, basically, that took me. Arnold went to Mario and said that the director should be the director of Robocop. So really, because it’s Arnold, it’s bigger than life or it’s not real life, you could say. [Laughs.]

Top Photo: John Phillips/Getty Images for BFI

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.