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.
"The third rape is the most mysterious," 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 last month in France. But the debate over whether the film is a statement of feminist empowerment or masochism - or whether 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 viewers 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 Le Monde's film critic Isabelle Regnier. "Some of my colleagues were more irritated - men who said 'Oh la la, it's not possible to show a woman who returns to her rapist.' It bothered men more."
Verhoeven has called the film a "noir thriller" that mixes 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 did not 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," 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".
NEW YORK TIMES