Elle, an almost debilitating act of cinematic provocation starring Isabelle Huppert, opens during a rape. We hear it first while the screen is black, then see the last 15 seconds in a disorienting long shot.
Huppert, 63, is half-naked on the kitchen floor. There are broken dishes everywhere.
Her attacker is in a black jogging outfit and a black ski mask. He has just punched her. He stands up when he’s done, stares at her for a few moments, then runs out.
Huppert, who delivers a breathtaking performance as Michèle Leblanc, a wildly successful, divorced executive, gathers her torn clothes around her. In a comic note that seems wildly incongruous, the camera cuts to Michèle’s cat who has been watching the scene intently.
Later, Michèle will gently chide the feline for not scratching out the man’s eyes.
What universe is this? It’s certainly a comic one, which suggests, as some critics have pointed out, that Elle is a "rape comedy."
Not this critic. Distasteful and grotesque on its face, that term does little justice to the extraordinary complexity of the film’s thematic terrain.
Adapted from the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle is the latest offering from Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who gained notoriety during his Hollywood career in the 1980s and '90s with controversial, sometimes twisted, films that dabbled in social satire and traded in extreme violence and extreme sexuality.
Verhoeven, 78, whose films include Basic Instinct and Showgirls (along with Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and RoboCop), was once a favorite target for critics who argued that his female characters didn’t represent feminist independence, but embodied male fantasies.
Elle puts forth a different type of character entirely, a strong, self-aware woman who embraces her sexuality and who tries to come to terms with her rape in such a unique, shocking manner that it forces viewers to rethink assumptions. Like its heroine, the film shocks by lunging back and forth between comedy and tragedy.
Strictly speaking, Elle is a comedy, a blacker-than-death social satire about bourgeois values, set in contemporary Paris. It’s viciously, demonically funny in parts.
But not in its rape scenes. Huppert will be assaulted three more times in the course of the 130-minute film. As Verhoeven makes abundantly clear, these horrific bursts of violence and hatred may involve sexual acts, but they’re about power. Each time they occur, you're hit as a viewer with such force, you almost feel compelled to apologize for laughing during other scenes.
Huppert's performance as Michèle is daring, gritty, and fearless. Her heroine is deeply flawed and filled with contradictions. An aggressive businesswoman who runs a video-game software company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), she’s a soft touch when it comes to her slacker twentysomething son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet).
She’s also a devoted friend to Anna and listens patiently as Anna shares her fears that her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), is sleeping with another woman.
Of course, the other woman happens to be Michèle herself, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be sympathetic. Verhoeven’s film is filled with sly observations about the hypocritical mores of Michèle’s social class.
Is Michèle a heroine or is she, like everyone else in the film, fair game for Verhoeven’s satirical barbs?
It’s almost impossible to get a handle on the character, one of the most complicated, contradictory, and disturbing people Huppert has played since the murderous corporate boss in Claude Chabrol’s Merci pour le Chocolat (2000).
Michèle is often ridiculed by her company's male software designers, who make her the butt of crude jokes. But she never loses her poise, her control.
In fact, she’s all poise and control after the first rape. She cleans up the mess with admirable efficiency and goes to the office. She’ll break down – for a few minutes – when the initial shock wears off.
Then comes the next attack, when the unknown rapist, who has been leaving Michèle creepy messages, breaks into her house again. This time, Michèle fights back and unmasks him, only to realize it’s someone she knows from her own social circle.
Elle is unique, brilliant, and disturbing in equal parts because in Michèle gives us a heroine who refuses to follow either one of the two options that films and novels usually reserve for women in her position. Most stories would portray her as a victim and build her narrative arc as a journey of therapeutic healing and self-acceptance. Other films depict the aggrieved woman as bloodthirsty, intent on seeking revenge.
Instead of going down either path, Michèle empowers herself by trying to understand the dynamics of rape, going so far as to seek out her attacker to befriend and seduce.
Is she crazy? Self-destructive? Masochistic? Or is she, as the film suggests, willing to do what it takes to transcend the experience by making it her own?
Verhoeven maintains a dramatic tension that’s almost unbearable. Huppert’s mesmerizing performance gives the viewer the will to stay with her, even if we may be repulsed by some of her decisions.
Verhoeven resists the temptation to sensationalize the material and doesn’t reduce Michèle’s fascination with her rapist to some kind of kinky game. Each attack she faces is as as horrific as the previous one.
Intelligent, deeply affecting, and utterly shocking, Elle is one of the most powerful and memorable films about sexual politics and sexual violence I have encountered.