Paul Verhoeven challenges audiences again with an evocative and complex new heroine.
There’s a lot to unpack in Elle, a film that is surprisingly funny, suffocatingly tense and profoundly evocative throughout its two hour and ten minute run. Paul Verhoeven’s first French feature film has been one of the most talked about this festival season, and the film continued its divisive but lauded run following its premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival on Friday.
There’s no question that Isabelle Huppert is a tour de force as Michèle Leblanc, a successful divorcée who refuses the mantle of victimhood following a brutal sexual assault in her home. Although Elle has been offered as a rape-revenge narrative, it’s a film that almost defies genre, as it is also a black comedy, a family drama and a thriller. Huppert herself touched on this during a post-screening talk at the New York Film Festival, saying the film was reflective of life’s defiance of genre, where you experience a range of emotion and events in the course of a single day.
Elle opens with punchy audio over black; bloodcurdling screams, a violent struggle and brutal slaps force us to not only picture Michèle’s attack but to truly experience the fearful emotions it evokes. And this is something Verhoeven masters throughout Elle, the ability to force the audience to feel an unrelenting and heightened sense of terror, anxiety and dread – emotions Michèle undoubtedly feels during but especially following the attack. While Elle is the latest in a long line of rape-revenge narratives, it stands out with its ability to truly convey the wide range of post-traumatic emotions, many of which are conflicting and confusing, without subjecting its character to a further sense of violation from the voyeristic nature of film itself. Instead, it submerges the audience, allowing them to experience these alongside Michèle.
Initially, we only see the immediate aftermath of the incident as the attacker scrambles out of the back door, leaving a bloodied Michèle to sweep up the fragments of broken china scattered on the floor. Later, as Michèle soaks in the bath, the soap turns pink with blood and she sweeps it away, preferring to forget and move on. This of course is impossible and the sight of her cat triggers the memory for Michèle all over again. This time, we relieve it from the beginning, with Michèle opening the back door to let in her cat, her attacker forcing his way in during the middle of the afternoon and the two struggling until he ultimately and brutally overpowers her, breaking a set of china tea cups in the process.
As we learn more about Michèle, her non-conformity to victimhood begins to make sense. Michèle is the daughter of a notorious French serial killer, which complicates her relationship with her mother, who has reveled in the macabre celebrity afforded to her by her own victimhood. Michèle by contrast has fought hard to reestablish her credibility, founding a successful video game company (much of the film centers on her demanding for the correct orgasm face in the game’s penultimate ogre sex scene) and living in a posh house in the Parisian suburbs, while her ex-husband, an unsuccessful writer, and her hapless son, raising a child that is not his, flounder in comparison.
Verhoeven keeps the film’s atmosphere tense, even through its moments of black humor, and like Michèle, we are never quite certain when it is safe, even during the day. During an afternoon coffee with her mother, Michèle once again flashes back to her attack, only this time she is able to fend off her attacker, violently beating him to a bloody pulp with her purse. Michèle, like many survivors of assault, must constantly relive the encounter, searching for any thread of understanding to ground such a senseless act and, when none can be found, finding solace in the fabrication her own justice.
Perhaps the most difficult and divisive aspect of Elle comes with the sinister cat-and-mouse game Michèle begins to play with her attacker. It would be easy to deduce this to a grotesque rape fantasy on the part of Michèle; after learning her attacker’s identity, she entices him to attack her once again. But something changes this time. Not unlike the heroines in past rape-revenge exploitation films, Michèle uses her sexuality to disarm her attacker since she cannot physically overpower him. As he raises his arm to smack her, Michèle implores him to do so, which visibly disarms and confuses him. “It doesn’t work like that,” he tells her, but Michèle doesn’t care any longer. She uses the attack for her own sexual empowerment and gratification, lustily gasping on the cold basement floor as she orgasms. Her attacker (and the audience, in some part) is horrified, but that is the point as Michèle has stripped away the power he sought through violation with her own consent.
Just as Elle defies genre, Michèle defies conventional labels and even what might be considered gender appropriate behavior following a sexual assault. Huppert elaborated on this at the New York Film Festival, telling the audience after the film’s press screening: “She’s what I would call almost like a post-feminist character, building her own behavior and space. She doesn’t want to be a victim, that’s for sure, but she doesn’t even fall into the caricature of the revenge avenger. She’s somewhere else.”
The labels we seek out to define a character like Michèle say more about us as a society than about her as a woman. Michèle’s rejection of victimhood isn’t a rejection of pity or sympathy. As we’ve seen all too clearly this week with the women who have brought sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, victimhood is often used as a weapon against women to color them as unreliable, as scheming and as women who asked for it. As uncomfortable as we might be with Michèle’s choices, they give her total agency and power. She is able to redefine herself on her own terms and not simply by the default choices afforded to her by society.
With Elle, Verhoeven has given audiences a new post-feminist heroine, one full of complexity and contradiction but one who is fully realized.
Elle opens in theaters on Friday, November 11.
Related Topics: Feminism