Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Anne Consigny, Jonas Bloquet, Laurent Lafitte, Christian Berkel, Alice Isaaz, Charles Berling, Judith Magre, Lucas Prisor, Virginie Efira
Plot: The CEO of a video games company, Michele (Huppert) is violently raped by a masked man, a crime she tries to get past to continue her strenuous life.
The opening to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a shocking, baffling, poignant one. Isabelle Huppert is attacked and raped by a man in a ski mask, while the pet cat watches placidly on the sidelines. The attacker finishes and leaves Michele lying in a pool of blood and broken glass, on her kitchen floor. She picks herself up, sweeps up the mess and then takes a calming bath. Rape is such a horrible, personal crime and here we have a middle-aged French woman taking it in her stride. Is it arthouse? Is it feminist? At the very least, you are hooked on the film to find out more.
Elle breaks the two-hour mark, a tough watch for a foreign language film, but this feels necessary as Verhoeven moves away from the rape and shows us Michele’s life outside of the crime. There is something symbolic about how the rape doesn’t completely define her from that moment onwards. She is immediately established as a no-nonsense mother, a demanding boss of a successful video game company and the daughter of an imprisoned mass-murderer. Even without the rape, Michele’s life is a complicated explosion of issues. One scene sees Michele have a dinner party, her guests at the table consisting of her mother, her erratic mother’s much younger boyfriend, the ex-husband who used to beat her, his new girlfriend, her business partner, the business partner’s husband who Michele is sleeping with, her son and his domineering girlfriend and the friendly neighbours, one of whom she is trying to sleep with. Michele definitely has a lot on her plate. For a long time, she is almost impatient with the fact she was sexually assaulted, annoyed that she has to take time out of work to go through medical check-ups and have to deal with her concerned friends urging her to call the police. At the same time, the rape is not forgotten. Hubbert shows the subtle changes to her personality in small, fleeting moments: her eyes linger on a dark street for a little longer than necessary, she jumps at her cat more often. We end up with an interesting crime drama, following the kind of whodunnit nature of a murder mystery, but where the victim can front the investigation herself. There are plenty of suspects to go around. Is the cheating husband of her business partner fancying a more intense sexual experience (he already asks her to play dead during intercourse)? Is her ex-husband wanting her back in his twisted way? Is it one of her two employees (one hating her leadership style, the other hopelessly in love)? And then there is the burning detail of her father being an infamous murderer and Michele caught up in the media storm. Is the rapist’s motives one of revenge? The answer is not easy to guess, making Elle driven by a burning desire to figure out who the rapist is and if he is going to do it again? Yet at the same time, Verhoeven makes sure that the rape mystery is not the full purpose of Elle. There is something fiercely feminist about Michele’s decision to not let the man who assaulted her also be the thing that defines her.
Sadly, Elle never ties its themes together. We spend so long getting to know this woman and getting wrapped up in the dark themes of rape, but as the film draws to an end, we need the answers to go somewhere. Verhoeven’s style of feminism seems to be about the men doing horrible things and the women refusing to rise to them. This is not just about the rape, but the cheating husband as well as the abusive ex-partner and murdering father. Other than the son who is merely incompetent, the men are fairly unlikeable. But Verhoeven’s answer to their actions is for the women to refuse to let their attitudes change them as people. There is a theoretically feminist quality to the message here, but there are several times when it comes across as weak, or worse, submissive. If a man is cheating, or god forbid raping you, something must be done about it. In the movie, karma catches up to all the bad people, but little of this is to do with the female victims. Around the finale, there are two examples where two female characters get together to discuss the men and their reactions are somewhat baffling. Perhaps a lot of this is down to rape being such a personal crime that, when portrayed on film, it needs to be handled correctly. There are a lot of uncomfortable moments in Elle, that are hard to stomach. We put up with them, because we trust Verhoeven to finish his narrative in a satisfying and just manner. Arguably, we don’t get that. This film has been getting some strong reviews, perhaps for its daring, but, personally, when a daring topic is approached, it needs to be more explicit about what it is saying. There is bound to be a lot of debate surrounding, whether this is feminist or exploitive? Did the villains get what they deserved? Elle is an interesting film, anchored by strong performances across the board (French acting has that natural, laidback style that makes these watches so much more believable), but a story that seems unsure where it needs to be headed.
Final Verdict: Daring and shocking, definitely, but that isn’t always a good thing. The morals here are awkwardly divisive, muddying the quality of Verhoeven’s latest picture.