Nov 17, 2016
I'm curious about the response this provocative film on rape by Paul Verhoeven could generate on American university campuses. Would it be studied or banned? No trigger warning or safe space may be enough to handle this movie, which unlike other movies about rape, resists the pull of moralizing, educating, or representing victimization with well-worn tropes.
Elle is a curious, well-made psychological thriller that aims to provoke discussion by teasing out the twisted psychology of its characters. It's a rape revenge fantasy only in the most literal sense of the word; it also happens to be a rape fantasy of sorts. It's a movie about trauma and its consequences, which has at its center a most unlikely anti-heroine.
In this story, which takes place among the well-heeled in Paris, rape is a trauma that becomes some sort of a game. After all, trauma and games both involve degrees of ritualistic repetition. Michele, (Isabelle Huppert) a rich, successful woman, has some gnarly psychological issues related to parental abuse when she was young. She is a victim that has empowered herself to survive and triumph in a terrible world, which in a way it's its own revenge. We discover through her contradictory behavior that she may still be reenacting her traumas. Michele has survived a horrific past and when violence returns to her life, she falls into its spell once again.
It stands to reason that if a character is played by Isabelle Huppert, no one should expect a fragile wallflower. She is an expert on women who piss ice water. It's not a coincidence that Michele happens to own a video game company where young men create violent, misogynistic videos. She is harsh to her mother, to her son, to her employees, even to her best friend and business partner (Anne Consigny). She exerts control by keeping everyone at bay, but she is also curiously compliant - she balances such behavioral extremes with ovaries of steel.
Somehow, La Huppert manages to make Michele sympathetic, not only because we see her survive a violent attack and, as the story unspools, we are made aware of her past, but because she makes bold choices and her unflinching honesty is both chilling and funny. She is an alluring enigma, wielding power while oozing contempt in some situations, and acting like a docile child in others. Her idea of love is writing checks to family members as she berates them with snark, being irrationally jealous of her ex-husband's younger girlfriend, and punishing her lover by acquiescing to bad sex. Michele has a dark sense of humor and takes to her own recovery from old and new traumas with methodical, steely resolve. She refuses to be a victim. She is in fact, what some males call a strong, powerful woman: the personification of the C-word. Her contradictions make her a fascinating anti-hero.
I can't think of any other movie where a female rape victim is not a conventional heroine or a martyr. Elle presents an alternative narrative to our culture's discourse around rape. It brings out in the open perverse stuff that probably only gets discussed in the sanctity of the therapist's office. Getting off on rape is not the response we are conditioned to expect from victims. It is a huge taboo.
Some people may find this movie objectionable, but I would counsel them to keep an open mind. Michele's story is unique to her and her behavior is as singular as her fingerprints (although she is probably not the only person in the world with these issues). Elle is based on a novel by Phillipe Djiann, and it presents the many compartments of Michele's world: her home life, work, French society, the media, the internet. The Catholic Church lurks heavily in the sidelines, its hypocrisy shrouding and abetting some tortured souls. We even get to imagine the motivations of her rapist. A peek into Michele's predicament is like falling down the rabbit-hole of respectability and finding a bottomless pit where human pain and desire swirl in a repetitive cycle of violence.
Watching the staccato pacing, the well-crafted editing, the spryness, scope and deftly handled development of the story (from an excellent screenplay by David Birke), I was reminded that Verhoeven was once a talented, competent director who made the original Robocop (a good movie) and Total Recall (not bad), but then went on to make trashy movies like Basic Instinct and legendary clunkers like Showgirls and Starship Troopers. That this is his most mature film is an understatement. Though he still gets off on violence, and stages it well, he seems to be better at orchestrating complex chamber pieces with many moving parts, like this one, than bombastic, digitally enhanced spectacles. Elle is an extremely engaging, even entertaining film that grapples with a thorny sexual theme without giving the audience any definite, let alone comforting, answers.