Greetings again from the darkness. It’s best not to pre-judge what to expect in a new Paul Verhoeven directed film. We haven’t seen or heard much from him in the past decade (the underrated Black Book, 2006), but we know surprises and twists and entertainment will be part of his work given his track record of Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Factor in that he is now working with one of the best actresses on the planet in Isabelle Huppert, and we walk into the theatre with no assumptions but a high level of anticipation.
The phrase ‘tour de force’ is no exaggeration for Ms. Huppert’s performance here. No time is provided for settling into one’s seat as the opening scene stuns us with a brutal sexual attack by a masked intruder. Afterwards, the bloodied victim calmly cleans the house, soaks in a tub and orders takeout. This is our introduction to Michele (Huppert) and begins our two hour mission of trying to figure her out.
Is she the ultimate feminist? She is the co-owner (with her best friend Anna) of a video game company that specializes in highly stylized and violent fantasy games (no subtle irony in that). Is she demented? She fools around with the husbands of her best friend and neighbor. Is she simply off-center? She scolds her mother for wanting to marry a much younger man, and her son for living with his selfish girlfriend who has a new baby via another man. She is not a good friend, business partner, mother, daughter, wife or person. This is no sympathetic character, yet thanks to Ms. Huppert, we simply can’t take our eyes off of her or stop wondering how she will handle the next situation (of which there are many).
Based on the novel “Oh …” by Phillipe Dijan, with a screenplay from David Birke (who has a similar theme in much of his work), the film spares us little from the daily life of Michele. We see her as a confident business person, a sexual being – whether peering through binoculars at a neighbor or trysting with a married man – and a somewhat devious and devilish person intent on revenge. It’s not until later in the film that we learn the family history that has been the driving force behind her rebuilding her life while also being unable to escape the past.
Ms. Huppert is in most if not every scene. It’s a powerful and rare performance that is complemented by some fine supporting actors: Anne Consigny as Anna (Michele’s friend and business partner), Christian Berkel as Robert (Anna’s husband and Michele’s play toy), Charles Berling as Richard (Michele’s ex-husband), Judith Magre as Michele’s mom, Laurent Lafitte as Patrick (the neighbor), and Jonas Bloquet as Vincent (the dim bulb son). Michele has interactions with each of these characters … none better than the Christmas dinner party where all are in attendance.
Verhoeven’s film can be viewed as a slightly sleazy guilty pleasure, or as a profile of a strong, independent woman with a flawed moral compass. It’s a reminder that we never fully escape the shadow cast by our parents, and some pay a greater price than others. It’s rumored that no major American actress would take on the role, which in the end, benefits the film greatly … no other actress could have provided what was needed (except perhaps Barbara Stanwyck, who died more than 25 years ago). Ms. Huppert’s performance allows this to cross many genres, and it is undoubtedly the best of the year in this category: a comically mean rape-revenge psychological thriller centered on consent and desire. Should you doubt this, perhaps Michele’s own words will convince: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.” It’s a pleasure to meet you ma’am.