There’s lots of highfalutin’ babble surrounding Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (en Français), which has been praised as a film that celebrates female empowerment on the cutting edge, while marrying elements of mystery, suspense, thriller, film noir, black comedy, domestic comedy and satire, which sends up all of the above. Idiosyncratic genre blending is alive and well here. One critic dubbed it a comedy of manners about rape.
Those threads are arguably present and give the film a layer of color (and added pretension), but at its core it’s about a fifty-something woman who is violently raped by a ski-masked stranger, is aroused even as she viciously assaults him in defense, tracks him down and ultimately falls in love with him (and he with her).
Based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… and scripted by David Birke, Elle is despite itself retro in its views—e.g., women dig being raped—though gussied up as a work of transgression. Well, to the degree that it’s not politically correct (not initially anyway), perhaps it is a tad inflammatory.
The Dutch auteur-provocateur Verhoeven loves riling up his audience by playing it from all sides. Remember Basic Instinct and his vampy campy cult classic (so bad that it’s good) Showgirls, where he constantly straddled the fence between lurid and liberated, misogynistic and feminist, mocking and embracing? He’s done it again—indeed, raising the bar—with Elle, his first feature in four years and his only French-speaking film; it will find its enthusiasts and undoubtedly detractors among audiences not turned off by subtitles.
His cast and crew are spot-on. Composer Anne Dudley’s suspenseful score, evoking any number of Hitchcock films, is just right for this material. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine and Laurent Ott’s production design make palpable the comfortable and welcoming high-end home where much of the story unfolds.
And Verhoeven has tapped the perfect star in Isabelle Huppert, who inhabits the kinky victim-predator (shades of her stint in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher) with elegance, steely resolve and a hint of insanity.
Divorced and the mother of an adult son, Michèle Leblanc (Huppert) is a top executive at a high-earning pornographic videogame company in Paris. Yep, she’s a player in (and beneficiary of) a culture that objectifies women.
Far more subversive from a feminist’s perspective is her matter-of-fact response following the rape. Michèle neither calls the police nor goes to the hospital. She takes a bath, washing away her blood as if it’s nothing more than menstruation, decks herself out for a social evening, and meets her friends at an upper-crust restaurant for dinner, where she mentions in passing that she was raped. Whether they’re embarrassed or disbelieving—or maybe it’s just French sophistication—they have virtually no response, short of one acquaintance awkwardly suggesting they wait a few moments before popping the champagne bottle’s cork.
It’s all very cosmopolitan as Michèle goes about her multi-tasking life at work, at home and with assorted significant others, a motley crop if ever there was one, including a philandering ex-hubby (Charles Berling); her current lover (Christian Berkel), who is the husband of her best friend-cum-business partner (Anne Consigny); her ne’er-do-well son (Jonas Bloquet); and her aging mom (Judith Magre) who plans to marry a boy-toy gigolo who’s clearly after her money.
Michèle is humiliated by her mother’s fatuous behavior and taken aback by her son’s willful stupidity, especially when he refuses to admit that his girlfriend’s baby is not his, even though it’s black. The farcical elements are amusing while derailing from the central story and serving, ironically enough, as its editorializing framework, trivializing the rape by placing it in a lighthearted business-as-usual context. Hey, it’s French.
And like any Frenchwoman, Michèle can “manage.” She is one tough boss-lady who, among other acts of assertion and agency, doles out checks to her mother and son in addition to handling a bevy of inadequate men. But darkness lurks beneath the surface. And now the story really goes out on a limb. Michèle’s father was a serial killer and is dying in prison. Michèle suggests that as a child she may have participated in his bloody rampages. She is tainted. Maybe evil is genetic. She abhors her father, to which her mother replies, “He was no monster, only a man.” Here it is: Duality is everywhere.
Just ask Michèle, whose feelings for her rapist are ambivalent at best. As it turns out, he is a repeat offender, returning to the scene of the crime on several occasions, breaking into her house (that she has not protected) and replaying the rape scene that has already become a kind of agreed-upon ritual between the two of them. Still, he is an anonymous figure and that’s menacing. Michèle suspects everyone—from her boyfriend to her ex to a neighbor (Laurent Lafitte).
And check this out: The neighbor’s wife collects statuettes of iconic Christian figures while he creates a Nativity scene in their backyard. These are telling details, as the Church comes in for its share of swipes too. The story is set during the Christmas season with its decorations and festoons of light all over the place; the religious backdrop is at once a contrast to the profane events that have transpired while none too subtly pointing an accusing finger at the Catholic Church that has set the stage for a culture of sexual abuse and duplicity.
When Michèle finally unmasks her attacker during one of their brutal encounters, their intimacy and bond intensify. So do their sadomasochistic games. He concedes he is otherwise impotent and she’s unabashedly into rough sex, which is just fine until Verhoeven abruptly turns the story into a feminist revenge narrative that comes out of nowhere. Worse, the female characters draw together in a rush of sisterhood (in one instance with lesbian overtones) that is equally unprepared for. Is this the politically correct antidote to Fifty Shades of Gray?
Still, Elle is worth the price of a ticket. Despite the film’s twists and turns and its hodgepodge of genres, it’s entertaining (admittedly, at moments enraging), and you leave the theatre with something to talk about. How often can you say that?