“It was necessary”
Director Paul Verhoeven has made a career of pushing the envelope whether through violence, sex, politics, or all three wrapped together. It’s hardly surprising then that his buzzword of choice on the promotional trail for his latest Elle has been “controversial.” The word choice is appropriate considering David Birke‘s script (adapted from Philippe Djian‘s novel Oh…) plays with taboos in ways that subvert public consciousness, but there’s an even more appropriate adjective: dangerous. Controversy is needed to shake us out of our doldrums, but it can also help bolster wrong ways of thinking if it’s not utilized correctly. Elle does this in spades with a lead character so independent, sexual, intelligent, and strong that she forgets the label never to be forgotten in matters such as rape: victim.
There’s no way around it—Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a victim. The film opens to a black screen with screams of agony crying out as glass breaks before an image of a ski-masked man atop her half-naked body arrives. Instinct kicks in as she cleans the mess upon his retreat, but psychological distress remains in her trashing of the clothes worn. Michèle takes a bath, blood permeating the bubbles at her waist to show how brutal this event was. She numbs herself enough to engage with her visiting son for dinner (Jonas Bloquet‘s Vincent), but finds a hammer when he leaves to hold tight in case her assailant returns. This will scar her—as it should. She doesn’t pity herself, but she doesn’t deny the attack occurred.
This first day is delicately portrayed and performed. We’re thrown into the chaos and exposed to Michèle’s tough-as-nails persona while also preparing for a call to the police that doesn’t come. There’s a reason—a heinous event from her past wherein the authorities and press savaged her ten-years young reputation instead of understanding her position as a victim alongside the many dead bodies slain by her father’s hands. It’s quick, but a line of dialogue does get uttered to explain her distrust of the police and the perseverance it took to reclaim her identity and ensure she would never be made a victim again. That notion is all well and good if it leads to her wrestling with the term, not her refusal to acknowledge it exists.
And this is where Elle becomes dangerous. In trying to make this female character iron-willed, the trio of men in control of her representation find themselves condoning the pervasive culture of misogyny running rampant today. Allowing Michèle to take matters into her own hands is a great revenge thriller conceit, but letting her sexual appetite warp what occurs to her into a fetishized fantasy isn’t. What this does is tell audiences that the actions onscreen are okay as long as they are being done to an “empowered woman.” Suddenly rape is okay because Michèle actually starts craving the “rush.” Donald Trump-esque locker room talk in the form of sexualizing one’s boss by way of rape fantasy is dismissed as harmless. That’s fine for Michèle, but horrible for women.
To hail this character as inspiring because she’s steeled herself to vulnerability as a result of past violent tragedy is literally horrifying. Her response to everything happening tells the men engaging in these vile acts that’s it’s okay. “I can take it, but just watch your back.” Suddenly victims of rape and sexual harassment who speak up against it are, unwittingly or not, branded as hysterical, silly. “Oh, it was just for fun that I put your face on a game character being raped.” “Oh, it was so exhilarating when you played dead while we had sex.” “Oh, you want to screw me? Well I will only do it if you let me rape you again.” This is what’s said and Michèle easily complies. It’s impossible to fathom.
Huppert is fantastic in the role. She deserves all the praise she has been receiving, but I hope she understands the message she’s projecting through the performance. You can try and tell me that this is all a satirical commentary meant to expose rape culture because Verhoeven has dealt in satire his entire career, but I’ll simply reply with, “bullshit.” I see why someone of Huppert’s talents would want to take on this role, but you cannot be naïve enough to believe its representation of women is something to be lauded. She’s a sociopathic sex addict—something the film wants to put onscreen for a reason I cannot fathom save satisfying men’s rape fantasies. The filmmakers ostensibly have created a woman who understands their “urges.”
It’s a shame because Michèle does some great things otherwise. I loved how she dealt with family members whether her sexually active mother Irène (Judith Magre), her ex husband Richard (Charles Berling) and his new girlfriend Hélène (Vimala Pons), or her well-meaning son and his pregnant psycho fiancé Josie (Alice Isaaz). I applauded her refusal to apologize for her affairs whether ongoing with her best friend’s (Anne Consigny‘s Anna) husband (Christian Berkel‘s Robert) or on the horizon with her devout Catholic neighbor’s (Virginie Efira‘s Rebecca) beau (Laurent Lafitte‘s Patrick). Watching her play them like puppets is fantastic in its drama and comedy. I only wish the main example showing her “bravery” wasn’t to embrace assault. Everything the character hopes to stand for is proven a lie.
Each revelation is obvious whether the red herrings meant to lead us astray or the actual oppressors shown with embarrassment when caught rather than guilt or apology for what they’ve done. Nothing shocks except for Michèle’s ability to take it all in stride and therefore render herself as cold and empty as her reviled father. I’d buy Elle‘s ambitions are to show that humanity consists solely of monsters like them, especially after what proves to be the most audacious and laughable revelation of all at the end with “faith” acting as an excuse to look away. The one sympathetic character in the whole bunch is Vincent and he’s depicted as so utterly pathetic that we can’t help despising him too. So what then is the point of watching?
Is it so men can get off on rape? Is it to show men that women who are okay with you objectifying them and assaulting them are out there if you look hard enough? Is it to force victims into getting over what happened to them because it was “just sex”? This whole endeavor straight down to an out-of-nowhere implication of lesbianism reeks of male fantasy feigning feminist agenda. I hope Huppert gets a nomination because she plays this horrible creature with such fire, but I also hope she doesn’t so the film can fade away from our consciousness. It’s very well made, but its intentions are misguided at best and lethal at worst. Anyone who says differently will probably call me naïve, but I’d argue the opposite.
 Isabelle Huppert as Michèle. Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Laurent Lafitte as Patrick, and Isabelle Huppert as Michèle. Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Isabelle Huppert as Michèle and Arthur Mazet as Kevin. Photo by Guy Ferrandis/ SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics