Film Review – Elle
Paul Verhoeven’s new film Elle, starts with a rape. It is both graphic and horrifying, so if you are unable to watch that sort of thing, this might not be the movie for you. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the role of sexual violence in film and television – thank you Game of Thrones – and its use as a device to get things going. Male characters are often spurred into action by the rape or murder of a loved one; the purpose of many female characters is often nothing more than motivation for the hero. Rather than giving female protagonists a deep or interesting background, writers often just have them be rape victims. Yes, rape happens a lot in real life, and as such it is legit subject matter but it’s become a lazy way to impart complexity upon a character. When I heard Verhoeven had made a rape revenge film, I was disheartened, but curious. RoboCop is one of my very favorite films (I miss biting satire) and I wanted to see what he would bring to the table. Turns out, Elle is not really a rape revenge film at all, although I could see why people might think so. It’s way more complicated, and much, much weirder.
Our victim of said rape is Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) who owns and runs a small company that produces lurid and violent fantasy video games. The seminal moment of her life is not the attack that takes places on her kitchen floor, but an event that happened decades earlier. She is the daughter of a mass murderer, and even though she was only a child at the time of his crimes, there were those who thought she must somehow have been involved. She’s never gone to see her father in prison, but his actions constantly reverberate through her life. Unfortunately, her father and her rapist are not the only toxic male presences in her life. Her ex husband (Charles Berling) is an ex because he hit her. Her son (Jonas Bloquet) appears incapable of assuming adult responsibilities. Her lover is a manipulative boor. Her employees are misogynistic man-children. She is surrounded on all sides by incompetent babies.
But Michèle herself is no saint. She loves her family, but cannot display it any other way than handing out cash. She makes her son smaller by assuming he only comes to her for a handout. She supports her embarrassingly sexual mother, but only monetarily. She is vindictive to her ex, treats her best friend shabbily, and is only nice to the neighbors because she wants to get busy with the husband. She is deeply fucked up, but yet she still manages to get up every day and get shit done. Having had so many negative experiences with the police because of her father, she is reluctant to go to them to report the crime and attempts to figure out the identity of her masked rapist on her own. So yes, rape is used to catalyze the story, but what she does with the experience is not anything one would ever expect.
This is a dark, dark movie, which also happens to be very funny. Some of the comedy stems from Michèle’s inability to be anything other than who she is. After the rape, she gets off the floor, cleans her self off, and gets back to her life. This is just one event out of a lifetime of experiences, and it is not until her attacker contacts her via text that she becomes interested in finding him. She is a very distinct and particular person, whose responses to the things unfolding around her have the capability to both shock and draw laughter. Almost everyone in this film is some degree of horrible, but it is in the recognition of their awfulness where the rest of the humor lies. It would have been easy to make all these people very unsympathetic, but the film manages to find enough humanity behind the monsters to keep the audience interested in their stories.
What is this if not a rape revenge fantasy? Well, to tell too much would be a mistake, but it’s about shame, and guilt, and a few of the other of the less noble feelings we all have locked inside us. Huppert is splendid in this role. She gives no clue what might be happening behind Michèle’s controlled façade; she simply is. We only see what she wants us too, and so her motivations are only guessed at, not explained. There is no one to hold our hands and explain exactly what just happened. The subject matter is controversial and not without problems, but what art isn’t. Our job as viewers is to engage with film, to question what we see, and to address with a clear eye the stated and unstated meanings of the story. I think Verhoeven has managed to take a sordid trope and turn in into something quite different, but there will be those who will never be able to accept an explicit rape as anything but misogyny, and they are well within their rights to think so. But if you have the stomach for it, this films offers up some very interesting ideas.