Paul Verhoeven has always been attracted to stories built around female sociopaths – in both The Fourth Man and Basic Instinct, a hapless guy is ensnared by a spider-woman who fucks him and fucks him over, but who sees him only as a useful tool (pun intended). Here, in a French film based on a novel by Philippe Djian (source author of Betty Blue), he gets closer to a similar protagonist by telling the story from her point of view, even when her motivation is opaque, and relegating the men (and a few women) in her life to stooge roles. Verhoeven signals his approach by opening the film with a cat impassively watching the protagonist – fiftysomething computer games publisher Michele Leblanc (sixty-three-year-old Isabelle Huppert) – being raped on her kitchen floor by a masked, violent home intruder. Later, she chides the animal for not even trying to scratch the rapist, but Michele also doesn’t act ‘normally’ – she calmly tidies up and cleans herself (bleeding vaginally after the attack, she makes a heart-shape with her own blood in the bath-tub foam) but doesn’t call the cops, though she does essay a little amateur sleuthing to see whether any of her employees is the attacker and keeps a wary eye out as she receives anonymous messages presumably from the rapist.
It emerges that as a child, Michele was briefly notorious when her father became a mass-murderer – and a random photograph of her in the aftermath of those crimes raised questions about whether she was complicit in them. When she tells her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) and best friend/business partner Anna (Anne Consigny) about the rape, they are appalled that she’s let it slide – but she says her previous experience with cops and the media means she wants to keep them out of her life forever, though later developments blur this understandable, simple explanation. Like most of Verhoeven’s films, this is as much a comedy of manners as it is a shocking sex-thriller … Michele has to cope with a mother (Judith Magre) who wants to marry a much younger gold-digging guy, a son (Jona Bloquet) who is blatantly not the father of his girlfriend’s child, a nagging near-ex lover (Christian Berkel) who happens to be her best friend’s husband, a comical array of resentful game-developers and prissy neighbours Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and Rebecca (Virginie Efira). There are even farcical dinner party and Christmas get-together scenes where everyone is wittily nasty to each other, and the wheels turn slowly as we see just how close to being a monster the heroine is, maybe as a legacy from her father (who, it turns out, would rather kill himself than be visited by her in jail) or maybe because she’s a bad seed who infected him.
The rapist returns, of course, and is unmasked as one of her circle of acquaintances – whereupon she enters into a sado-masochist relationship with him while plot developments she nudges along set up a finale that might mean justice is served or that Michele has contrived something appalling in order to increase her control over her strange little circle of dependents. Huppert, always a committed actress, responds well to Verhoeven’s style, which is broader than she is used to – following Black Book (and, even, Showgirls), this is a female-led Verhoeven film: Michele isn’t an easy, comfortable character to be around, and being a middle-aged mother (notional grandmother) hasn’t slowed down her capacity to damage people. The story has overtones of rape-revenge but the degree of Michele’s culpability even in crimes committed against her is queasily ambiguous – and she’s capable of acts of appalling cruelty against women (knowing just the worst time to tell her friend she’s been sleeping with her husband) and men that still don’t make her an irredeemable witch because Verhoeven and Huppert present her as such an entertaining, amusing, attractive diva. Like many Verhoeven films, it’s bigger than it needs to be – 130 minutes with a lot of sub-plots – but at the heart is a fascinating, challenging portrait.