Content note: this piece discusses filmic representations of traumatic events.
Some spoilers follow.
I’m not sure there is an appropriate response to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; I’ve read reviews, critical responses, and reactions from friends that have been ranged from the enthusiastic to the repulsed, and I can’t really imagine having a discussion with them where I would present the film in order to show them “how to watch it” or “why it works.” It is, in the gentlest of terms, a difficult film, and one that many may deign to anoint as exploitative, misogynistic, or any of a hundred other serious charges. I cannot consign those as incorrect or misguided reactions. But for my money, Elle is a far more serious movie than it lets on, and if you are able to stomach it, there are real ideas and questions waiting for you.
Rape films are, by their nature, difficult to watch, much less discuss. That we seem to be edging closer to having a firm, national (and perhaps, international) discussion on what consent means, what harassment is, and how to break out of a culture built on male-dominance and the objectivity of women—all of which are long overdue—makes it all the more of a hot button. Elle is a rape-revenge movie; it starts mid-rape, and though the attack isn’t filmed in a stylized or gratuitous fashion, it is still extremely hard to watch. The woman being attacked is Michèle (Isabelle Huppert, sublime); after the rapist leaves her home, she throws away her clothes and orders dinner. She does not tell the police. As the film progresses, we follow her as she runs a video game corporation, reckons with a troubled past, and tries to discern the identity of her attacker. She has flashbacks; she has suspects. But while we know that the attack is haunting her, she remains calm and in control of her day-to-day life, and almost despondent towards what has transpired.
Eventually, during a second attack, Michèle discovers the identity of her rapist. Again, rather than calling the police or turning him in immediately, she begins to play a bizarre sort of mental game with him, luring him closer, seeing how much power she has over him, possibly enjoying the violence he represents. The implication perhaps goes even a step further: that she enjoys being attacked. Because she is so emotionally removed, it’s difficult for us to know what she’s thinking, and though revenge is ultimately taken, it may not be in the manner we expect or desire. Given the already difficult subject matter, Michèle’s actions (or inactions) serve to further our feelings of discomfort with the film. Here is someone experiencing something truly horrifying, and behaving in none of the ways we might expect or want her to. The horror and frustration of the film compound themselves into a visceral reaction that settles deep in the gut; it can turn you away completely, or leave you feeling perhaps ashamed at how fascinated you are by this character and how hard it is to understand her.
Verhoeven has always been a odd sort of director; when he’s working at the top of his game, the films he’s making turn out to be a kind of thinking-person’s pulp. When he’s off his game, thought and meaning go out the window and pulp quickly devolves into trash. You can get a gem like Robocop, which works as a big, loud action film and also a critique of law enforcement, or you can end up with Showgirls, of which the less is said the better. Elle wears the disguise of a dirty, taboo-breaking kind of mystery-thriller; but there is something at work at its core. Even if that something is only the desire to make us reevaluate what we expect to see.
The rape-revenge sub-genre is usually reserved for nasty, exploitative horror films. Though there are some fascinating takes, for every Virgin Spring there are seemingly hundreds of I Spit on Your Graves. Typically, though, regardless of how well executed the film is, the storyline is the same. A woman is raped; afterwards she (or a surrogate, if she is also killed or incapacitated) takes revenge. What Elle does that sets it apart within the parameters of the standard rape-revenge movie genre is make us question everything we assume we know about what it means to be a victim, what it means to have power and control, what it means to take revenge, and why we think about these things in a specific mental framework in the first place.
When we think about the basic concept of Elle—a woman is raped and doesn’t respond the way we expect—the inevitable question becomes: why do we presume to think we know what the proper response to something so horrible is? Is Michèle somehow less of a victim because she continues about her daily life as if nothing has happened, or more of one because of her apparent attempt to deny what has happened to her? Does that denial, or refusal to let it dominate her life, grant her a sort of empowerment, or is it merely another form of dealing with trauma? More than anything else, when we see someone attacked and traumatized on screen—the screen, of course, being a simulation of our real lives—why do we presume to know anything about how they would or should react? Every person is different, and every life processes the unfathomable in a different manner. There are reasons for why Michèle acts the way she does, but we may be upset by them simply because she is an unlikable and often unknowable character. But that does not make her invalid, nor does it negate the validity of her actions. That we are troubled by the proceedings is precisely the point: Elle exists to shake us, to make us truly reconsider how we think about and understand rape, its aftermath, and sexual power. We may not like the idea that there the gray areas of human behavior are much deeper than we had perhaps assumed they were.
In this sense, Elle is a provocation, pure and simple. It is well made, and fantastically acted, but it exists to disturb us, to poke and prod in ways that directors like von Trier and Haneke typically specialize in. The movie that seems to draw the most frequent comparison is Haneke and Huppert’s devastating take on repression and its repercussions, The Piano Teacher. That film also features a difficult, disturbed, and troubling central character trying to understand and take control of her desire, with results that—typical for Haneke—leave us staring into an emotional and mental abyss. The comparison between the two films is certainly valid; they may work as a bizarro double-feature for those interested in exploring confounding and troubling female characters.
But there are also those who would simply, politely decline that invitation. That is not an invalid or somehow inferior choice, nor is the response of revulsion or abhorrence at a film like Elle. It exists to elicit such reactions, and the desire to ignore it, avoid it, or light it on fire are all as valid as the reaction of those who are fascinated or taken with it. It is not an easy film; and given how new it is, it can hardly be called essential (in the way that some might coronate The Piano Teacher). But it does exist, and for those who want to engage with it, it has very real questions to ask. Though we may not like the answers.