PARIS — “No role is hard for me. It’s never hard.”
Isabelle Huppert was talking about her reputation for being fearless — and why she had no qualms about starring in Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, “Elle,” in which she plays a woman who is violently and repeatedly raped by a masked man and then engages her assailant in a game of cat and mouse.
In the film, her character, Michèle Leblanc, a Parisian video game company executive and the recently divorced daughter of a convicted serial killer, is strangely drawn to her attacker, even after she unmasks him. “The third rape is the most mysterious,” Ms. Huppert said. “Obviously something happens during that rape. It’s almost like a love scene. Almost.”
That “almost” — and the film’s unsettling mix of violence and comedy — set off a heated conversation at the Cannes Film Festival last month, though “Elle” drew glowing reviews from American and European critics alike. Shown in competition on the last day of the festival, it left prizeless — this year’s jury was deeply at odds with critics — but is already one of its most talked-about films.
The raves and conversation continued when the film opened in France last Saturday. But the debate over whether the film is a statement of feminist empowerment or masochism — or whether Mr. Verhoeven has forged a new genre: screwball sadomasochism? — is bound to continue when Sony Pictures Classics releases the film in the United States in November.
While many critics say they expect the film to generate controversy, few have expressed discomfort with it. Instead, they have embraced its ironies. In a twist revealing of today’s gender politics, some feminist critics have praised “Elle,” while some male viewers at Cannes — and some male distributors who turned it down — have bristled at how the film has audiences laughing between violent rape scenes.
“The fact that she returns to her rapist, that could be problematic, if the rape weren’t shown in all its destructive violence,” said Isabelle Régnier, a film critic at Le Monde. “Some of my colleagues were more irritated — men who said ‘Oh là là, it’s not possible to show a woman who returns to her rapist.’”
“It bothered men more,” she said.
Nearly 25 years after Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs and wielded an ice pick in his “Basic Instinct,” Mr. Verhoeven said he had wanted to make “Elle,” his first full-length feature in a decade, in the United States — only to discover that Hollywood actresses wouldn’t go near the role. Investors shied away, too.
“They felt it was so, let’s say, un-American and so not in the direction of what you’d expect from an American movie,” Mr. Verhoeven said in a telephone interview. After Michèle unmasks her attacker, he added, “it doesn’t go in the direction of a revenge movie, and I think that was an obstacle from the point of view of politically correct morality.”
Instead, for what is billed as his umpteenth comeback, he wound up making his first French-language film, in France, produced by the French producer Saïd Ben Saïd. “Elle” is based on the French novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, with a screenplay by the American writer David Birke that was translated into French.
After being raped, Michèle doesn’t go to the police, possibly because of her troubled family past. Instead, she tries to figure out who her attacker is and asks a young male video game designer to hack into the office system of her company to see if anyone on her staff is out to get her. Along the way, there are sexual infidelity and comic subplots involving Michèle’s aging mother and the mother’s young lover; Michèle’s ex-husband;and their hapless son, who is raising his girlfriend’s child.
Mr. Verhoeven called the film a “noir thriller” that mixed genres. “There’s an enormous amount of ambiguity, gaps that are in the narrative on purpose for the audience to fill in,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to fill them in “in a Freudian way.”
Critics have taken the film on the director’s terms. “Let’s be clear: ‘Elle’ doesn’t downplay the violence of sexual aggression, but it describes the improbable meeting and fusion of two sexually compatible monsters,” the critic Jean-Baptiste Morain wrote in the French independent weekly Les Inrockuptibles.
“It doesn’t put forth the untenable and, alas, well-known discourse that women secretly dream of being raped,” he added. Instead, the film “puts men and women on equal footing; it tells us that there’s not only one form of feminine or masculine sexuality — that it’s not gender that determines sexuality.”
Critics have been wowed by Ms. Huppert. In The Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang called her turn “one of the greatest performances of her very great career.” Others have noted that “Elle” includes sly references to her formidable filmography, including Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” (2002); Christophe Honoré’s “My Mother” (2004), a story of incest; and Claude Chabrol’s “Madame Bovary” (1991).
In Le Monde, the critic Jacques Mandelbaum singled out her “taste for suffering.” In “Elle,” he wrote, Ms. Huppert has “a passion, at once distant and inextinguishable, to suffer and to make others suffer, a sadomasochistic stubbornness of a kind we have probably never seen before in the history of French acting.”
Interviewed by phone, Ms. Huppert said that Michèle “doesn’t want to be a victim.” Instead of becoming “an object” after being raped, she added, “she immediately has the instinct to turn herself into a subject. Instead of being submitted to what she was confined to, she wanted to take control of that thing.”
Mr. Verhoeven’s long career has ranged from art-house films in his native Netherlands to “RoboCop” (1987) and “Starship Troopers” (1997), with a critical nadir being his 1995 feature “Showgirls,” now considered a camp classic.
He said he did not see “Elle” and its genre-mixing as a commentary on Hollywood conventions. “I did it because I liked it,” he said, “not because I wanted to make a statement in any way about filmmaking.”