Elle, the new French-language movie from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Robocop, Showgirls), opens on the rape of its protagonist, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert). From there, Michèle cleans herself up and goes about her day—she’s so resolute in her unwillingness for her life to be disrupted any more than it already has been that she even refuses PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis, which blocks the transmission of HIV) because she doesn’t want to risk the treatment’s minor side effects interfering with her work as the head of a video game company. Michèle’s recent past soon catches up with her as it becomes increasingly clear that her distant past has yet to loosen its grip on her and her life.
Based on Philippe Dijan’s 2012 French novel, Oh..., Elle subverts its own list of conventions with choices that we’re not used to being seen made onscreen by its characters. The most provocative thing about Elle, courtesy of career provocateur Verhoeven, is its refusal to provide easy answers in terrain that seems consciously constructed to be a moral minefield.
That said, this is a movie about rape made by a man based on a book by a man that was adapted into a screenplay by a man. The creative participation of one of the planet’s greatest actors, Huppert, is paramount to the movie’s creative success. Verhoeven says he didn’t direct Huppert—not conventionally, anyway—and during a Q&A following a New York Film Festival screening for press last month, Huppert remarked, “I think Paul said he was interested in what I was doing because I was a woman by definition I would know more than him what I was supposed to do. It is a kind of documentary of a woman.”
While they were in town, I spoke with Huppert and Verhoeven about their film, which they are generally resistant to interpret and politicize. Elle will undoubtedly divide audiences, perhaps in predictable ways (my male critic friends have embraced the movie far more enthusiastically than the women writers I know who have seen it), but I think they did provide to me a good lens through which to view a movie this challenging and potentially disturbing. In order to grapple with some of the film’s larger points, I have included a discussion of what could be considered spoilers, so beware. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: At the NYFF press conference, Isabelle, you said that Elle has something that never existed before in fiction. I wonder what specifically you were referring to as unique.
Isabelle Huppert: Yeah, that was my feeling from the very beginning. When I read Oh…, I thought, “This woman, I don’t know her yet.” Even in fiction, it’s kind of a prototype of a woman that did not exist before in the sense that it’s clear from the beginning that she doesn’t want to be the usual victim. She doesn’t want to be a victim, but she doesn’t either fall into the caricature of the revenge woman. She’s in a different space. She’s somewhere else. That’s why I thought she was a new type of a woman, and that’s always good news, in a way.
Did you have any strong feelings about depictions of women’s victimization or rape onscreen before this movie?
Huppert: No. I think the film is more to be taken like a tale, like a fantasy. It’s not a generalization of something about rape. It’s a story about that woman reacting the way she reacts. She doesn’t react in a predictable way to that event. What was interesting in the book and film is that rape is almost like a non-event for her, strangely enough. It’s equal to anything else that happens in her life—it’s one among other things. And that’s how she takes it. That’s the way she takes control upon it. That’s what she wants—she wants to control what happened to her.
As much as she soldiers on, she does have flashbacks to the rape. Whether or not this is a story about liberation or oppression is murky. Michèle is at the mercy of circumstance in multiple ways. She’s not entirely a superwoman.
Huppert: No, by no means. That’s what was also interesting about her. Being a superwoman would mean she’s, in a way, like a man. She’s definitely a woman. She doesn’t fit any kind of caricature of a male pattern. If she was that kind of avenger/revenge woman then she’d follow a male pattern. She just wants to invent her own way.
Paul, was the fact that Michèle is so unpredictable something that appealed to you about this character?
Paul Verhoeven: Sure. You read the novel, and you get the same feeling you get when you watch the movie, I think. You cannot predict her. Because it’s Isabelle, you always believe whatever road she takes, whatever direction she goes. It doesn’t mean that you would follow her, that you agree with her. I think you can look at her and disagree, but you are always convinced that this woman, as portrayed by Isabelle would do that. It’s always authentic. Without Isabelle Huppert, I don’t believe this movie should have been made.
When I watch this movie, I’m not just seeing a story—I see meta commentary on what we come to expect as humans and moviegoers. Beyond the treatment of rape, there are specific conventions that are upheaved like Michèle ranting at her mother who’s comatose in the hospital—that scene almost always plays as a hushed, tear-stained vigil. Was refuting convention intentional or a consequence of the source material?
Verhoeven: That scene comes out of the novel. The breaking down of certain barriers to a degree comes from Philippe Dijan, but of course, we enjoy that. Seeing what Dijan had done and respecting that and trying to understand why he did it, we came to the same conclusions.
I can sense that you’re both resistant to politicizing this, and I think one of the film’s most interesting ideas is that desire can supersede politics for Michèle. That’s not an idea that fits comfortably within progressive discourse or on film for that matter. Did the idea that Michèle would be attracted to the man who turned out to be her rapist and then continue to be attracted to him after she found that out strike you as realistic?
Huppert: I never thought about it as being a problem. I never came up with any kind of moral barrier. I never thought that I had to transform the story to make it acceptable. The man dies at the end, you know? And obviously as much as he doesn’t bear any emotional reaction when she’s being raped, she doesn’t either bear any emotional reaction when he dies, which is really the mark of something. It means yes, there may have been attraction, there may have been desire, but it’s really difficult to understand what was the role of manipulation and what was the role of veracity. It leaves us with a total mystery. For me, the most important thing, and this is even when I watch the film, is the man dies, and there is a very strange expression on her face when he dies, but obviously he’s going to disappear from her life as easily as he got into there life. That means something. There was no real emotional engagement in that story. There was something about violence, something about attraction, but deep inside you can’t say that she had a real relationship with that man.
Verhoeven: The movie refuses to be a revenge movie. Normally you’d expect that at the end of the second act, when she finds out who is the rapist, in American terms, you’d expect revenge. That would be normal. Strangely enough, the man dies in the end, and he dies nearly in the way she had fantasized. She doesn’t do it herself—it’s coincidence, but in fact the revenge is there anyhow in some way.
Huppert: And she seems to be OK with it.
Verhoeven: I think the movie refuses to be this or that. I think the beauty is there’s a little bit of this and that and in some way, it all makes sense.
That’s what’s really modern about it.
Huppert: I think so too.
The conversation I had with myself in my head during and after the film regarded not questioning what men do in this movie, and yet constantly questioning Michèle’s motivation. And I think the bigger question there is: Why do you question her? Why is it so hard to accept that she is doing what she wants?
Huppert: It’s really about the power or the liberty or the freedom of that woman. All the men are fading in this movie. It’s like the fading of a male era, where all the males are mediocre—a failed writer, for example. All the men are weak figures, and she’s the consequence of that.
In the book Michèle owns a screenwriting company; in the movie, she owns a video game company that releases violent video games. Was the idea to further complicate Michèle’s world by having her participate in her own way in a culture that oppresses her?
Verhoeven: I never looked at it that way. I felt that talking about scripts with 20 people, scripts that we don’t know about, was extremely boring and non-visual and my daughter said, “Why don’t you make it into a video game?” and it turned out that [screenwriter] David Birke was an expert on video games. We just did it. We had no money to make our own video game, so we went to a video company in Paris and found two video games we put together. In fact [the game character] is not raped in the original version of that video game, her cranium is crushed a la Starship Troopers, in and later one of the employees working there makes a pornographic version of that [featuring Michèle]. We started to draw the parallel there, where she comes out glorious after her so-called “dark rebirth,” she comes out as the heroine. Of course there’s a parallel to the character of Michèle that comes out.
It was not really an attempt to do that. It came, basically, as we were working. I don’t know if you can say exactly how that works in your brain. Your consciousness picks out certain elements and moves them in different directions and that became the video game. It’s not that we set out to say, “Now we are going to use our knowledge of video games, which are mostly made by men and violent…” I never thought about that, ever. In conversations like this, I can say, “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s true,” but that’s not information I had, really. I didn’t even think, “Video games are violent.”
Rape has come up repeatedly in your work. Is there a guiding philosophy there?
Verhoeven: Philosophy? It’s looking at the world. That’s all it is.
Is it to confront people?
Verhoeven: No, it’s to say that’s how it is. It’s real. If you look at my Dutch movies: all realism. Basically I come out of a school of Dutch realism. If you look at Dutch paintings from the 16th, 17th century, you see things you would not see in any other country, about people peeing and pooping and having sex and etc., etc., and bordellos, and god knows what else. Of course it’s all symbolic of this and that. Rembrandt was much more progressive than, say, Manet. I’m educated that way. That’s what I knew about. In elementary school, they tell you about that. I’ve always been a fan of realism. I say, “OK, how is it? What’s really happening? What are people really doing?” Why go around it? Why not show it? Rembrandt did it. Hiero Bosch did it. Why shouldn’t I do that?
And I think rape is violence in general, but there’s more rape violence than accident violence or killing violence. It’s an important part of life, a horrible part of life, as is what we’re doing in Syria, say. But it’s really there. It’s weird that you should explain why you’re interested in rape. It’s part of our lives. Why close your eyes to that, you know? I’m fully aware of the fact that it is dominant. How many women that you talk to have a story that this is what happened to them? Nearly everyone. So I feel that it should not be avoided.
I left the movie not really sure as to whether Michèle is a sociopath. Isabelle, do you have an answer for that? Did you need to know that to play this role?
Huppert: No. If I came up with this question, I don’t think I would have been able to do the role. Is she a sociopath? Was she complicit [in her father’s killing spree]? I don’t think she was. She was a child, whatever she did.
Verhoeven: She was burning all the furniture, that’s it.
Huppert: But she was a little girl. I didn’t really think about all that when I was doing the film. That was really interesting for me. I think that’s the strength of the film: You watch someone—which is me—really making it up as it happens. At the end, the film is there, and when you see the film, you can come up with all this questioning, but we never tried to answer to this kind of questioning. Not only did I try to find the answers, I didn’t have the questions, even. If I dare say so.
Verhoeven: If you bring up something like that, you realize what you are doing: you’re labeling. Labeling is rejection. I think the moment you label, you reduce, and it becomes mathematics, and art is gone.
Huppert: It becomes a psychological study, which it is not. We left it completely free. Of course there is the irony. There is the fact that it’s a comedy—but not only a comedy. It’s a human comedy, it’s also a thriller. But if Paul and myself had sat down before the movie started and tried to come up with all those questions, I don’t think we would have made the same movie.
Verhoeven: That’s why I’m glad that we never discussed anything.
Huppert: It was like a volcano that erupted. Sometimes it’s hard for people to believe it, especially with a rationalistic approach to making movies, but sometimes it’s even better not to really know what you are doing. Cinema is about unconsciousness, you know? And the story was so full and dense. You are being pushed by some kind of strength, and you don’t do it with an awareness.
Verhoeven: That’s what art is about. You start somewhere and you go in directions that you don’t know.
Huppert: If you cut that, you reduce creativity. I understand that people can be a bit surprised that none of us came up with [the answers to] certain questions, but I think by instinct, we knew that we had burning material. If we answered the question it’s like we were setting the fire out before starting the film. We let it burn all the way through.
Elle is currently in New York theaters, and Nov. 16 in Los Angeles.