Indiewire’s Eric Kohn describes Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s French-language film starring the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, as a “lighthearted comedy about rape.” If such a thing could be made, would it be at the hands of a male director and writer?
According to Kohn, the film, which was adapted from a Philippe Dijan novel and written by Verhoeven and David Birke, begins with “the screams of a man and woman in apparent orgiastic bliss. Then comes the cutaway, which reveals a far more nefarious incident: Middle-aged Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), in the process of getting raped by a masked assailant on the floor of her home. Once he dashes out the door, Michèle simply lies there, gazing up at the ceiling, and it’s not clear if she’s traumatized or intrigued.”
According to me, the film begins with the screams of a woman getting raped, and the groans of a man raping her, then comes the cutaway, which reveals the rape. Once he dashes out the door, Michèle lies there, gazing at the ceiling, like a woman who has just been violently raped. And I’d venture to guess that it’s my experience as a woman, for whom sexual assault and rape are daily possibilities, that made it impossible for me to appreciate this lighthearted rape romp for what it supposedly is.
Elle is undoubtedly a well-made and well-written film, acted superbly by Huppert and the rest of the cast. But even after seeing it twice, once several weeks ago and once again on Sunday, I’m unsure what exactly I’m supposed to take from it.
The film tells the story of the weeks following Michèle rape—her telling her friends about the incident; her neighbor Patrick becoming an increasingly-comforting presence, with whom she almost has sex; her work at the video game company she founded with her best friend Anna. Throughout the film we learn just how vile the men in Michèle’s life are—her ex-husband hit her; Anna’s husband fucks Michéle behind her back; the men employees at her video game company keep fetish porn on their work computers and roughly handle nude women models for their work.
We also learn, rather late, that Michèle is the daughter of an infamous serial killer, who murdered every person on their block (27 people plus animals), then enlisted 10-year-old Michèle to help burn all their belongings. Michèle becomes the subject of a now-iconic photograph called “Ash Girl,” in which she’s covered in soot, staring vacantly into the distance.
Throughout the film, we see her rape, in graphic detail, over and over again. Twice with varying amounts of detail, then through what appears to be her fantasy—what she might have done to fight back if she was more prepared. Then, one night, the same man is waiting in her house and attacks again. She manages to stab him and take his mask off, only to discover it’s her neighbor Patrick, who she, in other circumstances, was down to fuck. She yells him out of the house.
The film then flips the script on the traditional rape narrative—instead of reporting Patrick or distancing herself from him and his wife, Michèle continues to see him, and engages in several other sexual encounters where the status of consent isn’t particularly clear, nor is the presence of pleasure. She also has the chance to ask him why he did it, and receives the response, “C’était nécessaire,” or, it was necessary. At the end of the film, Michèle tells Patrick that their relationship is twisted and diseased and that she plans to report him. Minutes later, Patrick breaks into her house in his signature ski mask and begins to rape her. Michèle’s son arrives home, witnesses the rape, and fatally strikes Patrick in the head with a heavy object. Patrick manages to stand up, take off his mask, and ask, “Why?” before dying.
And I, also, had to ask: why was that the way the story ended? What did we gain from it?
In real life, not movie life, things happen at random and without meaning—a rape is just a rape, a murder just a murder, without any kind of meta-analysis or social theory attached. And not every film about violence against women needs to be moralizing or taking some kind of stance, and, in fact, I’d prefer that.
In an interview with my colleague Rich Juzwiak, Huppert says that Michèle “doesn’t want to be a victim, but she doesn’t fall into the caricature of the revenge woman... [her rape] is equal to anything else that happens in her life—it’s one among other things.” And the film isn’t just about her rape; it’s also about her relationships with men, with her violent father, her mother whose sexuality she disapproves of, about Michèle’s confused continuum between pleasure and pain.
Verhoeven also told Rich that “the movie refuses to be this or that,” and that the beauty is that “there’s a little bit of this and that and in some way, it all makes sense.”
But when the film is called Elle (in french, she, her, or the feminine it), when the main character is making a video game about the “dark rebirth” of a woman from innocent school teacher to evil queen (a rebirth which is prompted when the monster Cthulu penetrates her head with his tentacles), when she is nationally-recognized as Ash Girl, a symbol of anonymous, misunderstood, woman’s suffering, when the film is dripping with symbolism, from her ever-present cat to various bloody triangles, it feels as if it is begging to be interpreted, to have proclamations made about the state of womanhood.
At one point in the film, Anna suggests Michèle go to the police, despite Michèle’s repeated insistences that she’ll never deal with them again after the infamous murders. This time is different, Anna offers, because she’s the victim. Michèle says, “I was the victim then, too.”
For some critics, like Kohn, to claim that Michèle somehow rises above her rape trauma is to imagine that a woman’s suffering only manifests itself in a specific way. Going one step further, to propose that if a woman suffers enough, she may be capable of bravely tolerating, or even enjoying repeated rapes, is to require a woman narratively to endure so much that she becomes this new, unique protagonist.
I was certainly struck with the film’s refusal to offer easy answers about Michèle’s perpetual suffering, and the purpose of the numerous, graphic rape scenes within it, other than this: In Elle, women capably deal with the grotesque, self-proclaimed necessary fantasies of men, and earn praise from critics and the audience for doing so. Verhoeven said the film would not be possible without Huppert’s acting and input. I agree: it is not because of the men, but in spite of them, that the film succeeds.