DUTCH director Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to provocation, having brought his particular brand of brashness to everything from the ultra-violent RoboCop to the lurid Basic Instinct and beyond.
This psychosexual French-language thriller feels utterly informed by that approach to shock and provoke by any means necessary and often to a fault.
Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful businesswoman working at a progressive video game company.
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One day her comfortable, relatively straightforward life is violently interrupted when she is brutally attacked and raped by a masked man in her own home.
Verhoeven is clearly reaching for more than it just being a game of cat and mouse as this woman seeks out the identity of and plans her violent revenge on the man who raped her. But whatever his narrative intentions, he never takes his eye off the ball of poking, prodding and violating viewer sensibilities over just what is acceptable to show on screen and thematically explore.
He seems to delight in wrapping you around a darkly twisted coil, playing around with audience expectation – you really are never quite sure where it will dare go to next – and keeping you on edge as to how this increasingly uncomfortable relationship spun out of a moment of horrendous sexual violation will progress.
But it’s that relentless, everything-turned-up-to-11 shock mentality that undoes a fair amount of the film’s ambition, becoming a somewhat numbing affair as it goes deeper down the rabbit hole of depravity. It shares quite a bit with the work of Lars Von Trier in that respect – provocation for provocation’s sake.
Huppert is the film’s absolute greatest asset. The Oscar-nomination is wholeheartedly justified but it almost defies being put inside that neat, awards-worthy box. Very few other actors could make this icy, almost brittle persona likeable, but Huppert is the perfect actor for the material, bringing a compelling mix of assertiveness, masked vulnerability and dry wit to an unusual feminist heroine.
Verhoeven’s film sets itself up as incendiary melange of a darkly comedic rape revenge thriller, intimate character study, and soap opera-ish family drama that throws up explorations of thorny issues like female victimisation, lurid voyeurism and the very nature of violence.
But while it’s certainly worth applauding and undoubtedly entertaining in its unpredictability, there’s something rather childish in its obsession inciting you to shout: “Oh come on, really?!” at the screen.