Elle has been billed as a rape-comedy, but that’s a misnomer. It’s a comedy in the classical sense given the events of the story, but it’s not necessarily funny (there are funny scenes, though). And yes, it’s about rape. Elle has been lauded as a return to form for Paul Verhoeven, and even a bold statement about how someone can deal with trauma. Yet the movie’s stance on the aftermath of rape was problematic for plenty of reasons. It’s really more of a non-stance.
While Elle is about trauma, I don’t think it ever says anything about trauma. The movie provokes, it needles, it offends, it intentionally upends expectations, yes, but the inscrutability of Michèle (played by an excellent Isabelle Huppert) serves as a convenient out for the film. Rather than offer some statement about rape and its aftermath, Elle hides behind a shield of ambiguity and provocation, hoping that will suffice.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Release Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)
Elle starts with the rape, in media res. Verhoeven shoots the scene with surprising restraint. There’s the noise of the assault off camera. Michèle’s pet cat looks on blankly. The rapist, dressed in black with a ski mask, stands and wipes blood from his hip and groin and then walks away. Michèle tidies up around the kitchen and continues about her day in a daze. She’s in shock, but it’s subtle. A brief bubble bath scene is so artfully done and haunting. Michèle’s a bit angrier at her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) when he comes to visit than she would be otherwise. Vincent asks about the bruise on the side of her face. She says she fell off her bike. The rape goes unreported. When Michèle finally mentions it to anyone, she waits for the most awkward moment possible to bring it up. She says what happened as if she lost a credit card.
Is it a coping mechanism or is it just the movie playing provocateur?
Elle aims for the uncomfortable laugh, and for a while it succeeds in doling out its cringe humor. At a certain point, it’s just cringes. While dealing with horrible things in life, one hundred other genres may be occurring in the world simultaneously. A portion of the film plays like a thriller, with Michèle narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there’s a family dramedy: Michèle’s jealous about her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, annoyed by her son’s screwed up relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and can’t stand her mother’s new boyfriend either. Then there’s the matter of her father and an infamous trauma in her past, one essential to Michèle’s character but never explored substantively in the story.
Huppert’s a saving grace for the film in that she plays everything so straight, even Michèle’s unexpected actions and reactions. Yet these are just actions in a performance, not necessarily actions stemming from a character. I could rarely get a handle on who Michèle was or how she interpreted the world and the events around her. The rape is replayed explicitly in the film, and then played again as a kind of revenge fantasy. Later, Michèle seems to invite victimization. There’s a harrowing scene in which Michèle seems turned on by the idea of the man she’s with raping her, recreating the trauma that opened the film. Is she feeling pleasure? Is that pain and masochistic shame? Is it a mix of both, and if so, what then? Huppert wears an inscrutable mask before, during, and after the scene. The moment is never discussed afterward.
I don’t need on-screen psychoanalysis or to be handheld through a narrative, but I’d like to be given some hint of what Michèle feels about what’s happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Michèle’s detachment as some opaque and oblique portrait of her psychology, but even this amounts to a blank gray page.
This is all extremely difficult and sensitive territory to explore, especially when Michèle’s motives are so ambiguous. Sure, there’s never a single correct way for someone to respond to trauma, but rather than provide an alternative portrait of recovery or greater insight into this personality in flux, I felt as if Elle was simply pushing buttons and inverting the traditional rape-revenge narrative for the shock value. That’s easier and less painful than really getting into someone’s interior life after such a traumatic experience. The film’s MO seems to be keep the focus on the inscrutable surface, and make it shocking.
It doesn’t help that Elle‘s perspective is male dominated; it’s directed by Verhoeven from a script by David Birke, and adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijan. Am I watching a woman’s experience as she struggles to retake power as all the men in her life rob her of agency? Or am I just watching a male interpretation of all this that indulges in a little bit of rape fantasy?
This might all be up for audience interpretation, which makes me surprised that so many critics have written that the film is so empowering to women and makes bold statements. I don’t think it says anything at all, or intends to empower anyone; it’s just well-orchestrated provocation. No surprise that by the end of Elle, I was left feeling a sour and empty frustration.
Michèle is the head of a video game company, though this portion of Elle serves as a mild subtextual and metatextual backdrop. They’re making a medieval action-adventure–think Warcraft by way of Assassin’s Creed with really antiquated graphics. During a meeting, one of her designers–a man who may be the rapist–says that Michèle’s pretentious literary background has gotten in the way of the game’s basic playability. I think Verhoeven’s penchant for provocation might have gotten in the way of the fundamental human concerns of Elle.