God knows where to begin to talk about Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s first film in 10 years. It is either the most heinous, misogynistic film in a long time or it’s an intelligent, complicated exploration of women’s agency that challenges our sensibilities and perceptions about victimhood. Honestly, it could go either way. After all, it is a Paul Verhoeven film.
Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a highly successful owner of a videogame company who, at the very beginning of the film, is violently raped in her own home. To say that it occurs at the beginning of the film is an understatement – it is the beginning of the film. It even starts before, as we hear it before we see it. Once it’s over, we sit shocked, horrified, repulsed, concerned; Michèle is anything but. Rather than alerting the authorities or showing any external signs of suffering she cleans up the broken glass, has a bath to wash away her blood and orders sushi. Michèle refuses to allow this traumatic event to derail her perfectly controlled life. Even when she does finally reveal to her closest friends the ordeal, it is done with the most insouciant of shrugs at a busy restaurant.
Throughout the film Verhoeven seems to be challenging our perceptions of victimhood. After the shocking rape scene, she regains consciousness, sits up and looks… pensive? Is it pure shock that prevents her from collapsing or is the film calling us out for expecting her to collapse and play the role of the victim? Should we take a closer look at ourselves if we are somehow confused when a rape victim doesn’t fall to pieces and doesn’t appear to be helpless or scared?
Such questions and ambiguity pervade the film. Even as Michèle returns to her daily routine – showdowns with bellicose, misogynistic male employees, passive aggressive meetings with her mother – it is clear that she is processing the attack. She learns how to fire a gun and buys a hatchet. She gets pepper spray and forces an employee to do background checks on all the men who work for her. But is she on the defensive or the attack? Will the weapons be used to stop the rapist from attacking her again or avenge the first assault? Should the title of the film be translated from French as the active ‘She’ or the passive ‘Her’? As the tension ratchets up, the more Michèle becomes impassive and unpredictable.
While Michèle may be the picture of composure, the men in her life are certainly not. Verhoeven goes to great lengths to surround Michèle with insecure, volatile males. Whether it’s her uxorious son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), yearning for maternal validation, the ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), looking for a self-esteem boost or Robert (Christian Berkel), her best friend’s husband lusting after her, the men in Michèle’s life all see her as Elle – a woman in her various but severely limited roles: the mother, the wife, the lover. They ignore her great business accomplishments, her wit and independence. It’s meant to be an interesting commentary on the patriarchy and its objectification of women. But such a commentary merely floats on the surface of the film. It’s explored in an almost perfunctory fashion and feels more like an added bonus to the troubling main purpose for these men existing: to create an air of intrigue around the rape.
Rather than focusing on Michèle’s harrowing experience our attention is diverted to the question of the man who attacked Michèle. Was it a stranger or someone she knows? Every man’s a suspect and no one can be ruled out. It’s troubling because it makes a film about a vicious rape have the air of a primitive whodunnit.
To make matters worse what at first was a challenge to our ideas about victimhood, slowly morphs into a taunt – a cry that has a lot less substance. After Michèle finds out the identity of the rapist – her composure and ambiguity somehow don’t feel like her own anymore, but rather imposed by the film for the sake of the story. The acquisition of weapons, the preparation, the sheer mental fortitude displayed by Michèle become the build-up towards revenge with no coherent pay off. Her frequent, voluntary interactions with the rapist post identity-reveal feel simultaneously complex and lazy. But more importantly, and perhaps tellingly, at times they are contrived and at worst, gratuitous. It’s as if even Verhoeven himself gets drawn into Michèle’s web of equanimity, losing control and forgetting why it is Michèle reacts the way she does.
The film’s ending is perhaps most frustrating. Without giving anything away, it ends simultaneously with an empowering image of two women refusing to let the men dictate and influence their lives, and with the tired old trope of the woman using her body and life to make the men around her feel better.
Can it be simultaneously a five star film with a towering performance by Isabelle Huppert, and a one star vacuous presentation of rape and victimhood that explores neither but revels in both? Can a film even really be a complex presentation of an empowered female protagonist while a large chunk of it suggests not all rapists are bad once you get to know them?
Like I said, Elle could go either way, but I’m not sure I’m convinced. 2/5