Dutch cinema's arch-provocateur Paul Verhoeven is back with his most critically acclaimed film in years, Elle, one that has generated the first-ever Oscar nomination for its celebrated lead actress, Isabelle Huppert. An intentionally provocative and controversial rape-revenge thriller, the movie mixes visceral shocks with the kind of darkly uncomfortable humour for which the RoboCop and Total Recall director is renowned, allowing the noted Huppert to add another memorable portrayal to an extraordinary career that includes the likes of The Piano Teacher, Amour and the recent Things to Come. Verhoeven's return to the cinema frontlines is also cause for film soundtrack fans to celebrate. For a director who relishes shocking an audience it's easy to underestimate the level of craft at work in Verhoeven's movies, and this extends to the film scores he has elicited from his composers over the years, the majority of which are uniformly outstanding. Having collaborated with both Basil Poledouris (Flesh+Blood, RoboCop, Starship Troopers) and Jerry Goldsmith (Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man) to spectacular effect in the past, Verhoeven now appears to have settled on Oscar-winning British composer and arranger Anne Dudley as his musical muse, her score for Elle coming 10 years after she first worked with the director on World War II drama Black Book.
Whereas the latter score was tinged with a sense of melancholy and reflection befitting its subject matter, Elle is a different kettle of fish, at once alluring and glacial, matching the contradictions inherent in Huppert's superb lead performance. Indeed the tone of the music could be seen as one long extended homage to Verhoeven's collaboration with Goldsmith on the magnificent Basic Instinct, a sublime erotic masterwork that arose after the exacting Verhoeven demanded the composer hone the perfect theme. Certainly there's a sense of broiling tension lurking beneath the Elle soundtrack, its ostensible attractiveness masking a real sense of darkness.
Intelligently structured, the album does a superb job of blindsiding the listener with its tonal shifts in the manner of the movie. The opening stretch, beginning with the impressively moody 'Main Titles', carries a melancholic, yearning sheen courtesy of the beautiful string section and the odd, wavering violin solo (there is next to no brass in the score). The theme is carried over into the following tracks 'Little Psycho', 'Unknown Caller', 'I Stopped Lying' and 'Parole Denied', all of which are possessed of a somewhat fragile quality that speaks of vulnerability and intimacy.
It's all change in the sudden, shocking 'Primal Scream', one that erupts for the first time with violently angry timpani outbursts and a subtle electronic undercurrent, moving the musical narrative into darker areas. Following this, Dudley cleverly inverts the tonality of her main theme to sound more tortured and anguished, leaning more heavily on the celli and double bass to indicate the changes occurring to Huppert's character. 'A Woman Your Age' proceeds in a far more tense, hesitant manner, the beauty of the theme reduced to a few grace notes beneath the oppressive strings whereas the much darker 'It Was Necessary' distorts the central violin theme with unnerving, burbling synth work, the most prominent so far; its integration with the orchestra would surely have made Goldsmith proud.
'The Book, the Bell, the Candle' re-introduces a fully orchestral statement of the main theme, the string section this time tainted with a sense of tragedy and which gets increasingly more suspenseful as it proceeds. 'Ash Girl' has more than a touch of Bernard Herrmann about it with the cyclical string figures and harp all tentatively spiralling around one another before building into another lush statement of the theme. 'Just Good Friends' introduces another new texture courtesy of a gentle piano and woodwind arrangement, building again into the strings and lulling the listener into a false sense of security.
The subsequent 'A Tortured Soul' lives up to its billing and is one of the score's standout cues, playing off the high-end and low-end sections of the string section against each other to create a palpable sense of emotional anguish, embellishing the mood with the odd, visceral timpani outburst. The lilting winds are at their most prominent at the start of 'The Shutters' before Dudley deliciously darkens the mood with the inflection of the celli, double bass and massed strings, a fine example of how musical nuance can catch the listener off guard.
'In Control' begins the final, sumptuously impressive climax of tracks that round off the main theme in fine style. The latter begins with an attractive statement of the theme before the harp and nervy strings again pull us back into more dangerous territory, as does the menacing 'The Prowler'. The excellent 'Fresh Paint' and the intentionally inconclusive 'A Different Ending' then present the fullest statements of Dudley's central idea. By toying with the listener just as Verhoeven does with the viewer, juxtaposing lushness with a sense of underlying anxiousness, the composer presents the best-possible score for the movie, and given the storyline's moral complexities the fact the music ultimately leaves us hanging also feels appropriate.
Given the formidable legacy of strong scores for Paul Verhoeven movies, Anne Dudley's score for Elle has a lot to life up to. Thankfully it's another commendably powerful effort, reiterating that he really is one of the finest filmmakers in terms of how he communicates with his composers.
It also reinforces Dudley's own versatility: having hopped between the likes of seminal 1992 British drama The Crying Game, the Oscar-winning The Full Monty and TV hit Poldark, the Elle score is another firm indication that she is one of film music's finest orchestral storytellers, not to mention that she's flying the flag for women film composers alongside the likes of Mica Levi, Lesley Barber, Debbie Wiseman and Rachel Portman (the only other female composer to have won an Academy Award). Possessed of a quality that is both feminine and threatening, it's a superb score that mirrors the complexities of its respective movie in fine style.