Film, Reviews, Screen

Elle movie review: a disturbingly unhistrionic portrait of a rape

| |

Spoiler alert! 

Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a well-to-do partner in a successful video game company, employing good looking amoral hipsters who are paid to produce video games in which damsels are sexually penetrated by the tentacles of mythological beasts.

Her corporate lingua franca with her female business partner (played by Anne Consigny) is violent, corporate and untroubled. They are best friends as well as colleagues, sophisticated and ironic, but neither express any feminist reservations about their business. Michele’s immaculately groomed sang-froid finds its form in controlling the company’s good-looking male minions and living a perfectly controlled, bourgeois life in the leafy Parisian suburbs.

But Michele’s unperturbed success in a business that thrives on violence is only one strand in a film that gorges on moral ambiguity. The opening moments of the film are a panicked, grotesque explosion of sexual violence as Michele is attacked in her house by a ski-masked intruder. As he gets away, Michele coolly cleans up the shattered glass and takes a bath, later casually mentioning to her ex-husband and friends at dinner “I suppose I was raped”.

All clichés of political correctness are placed on the narrative slab and sliced up with surgical precision.

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who excels at riding a tightrope between intellectual provocation and outright tastelessness (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), immediately turns the expectations of the suspense genre on their head.

We are used to post-assault scenes of heroines curled in shower stalls, psychologically scarred forever, unable to communicate the brutality they have undergone. But not in a Verhoeven film where all clichés of political correctness are placed on the narrative slab and sliced up with surgical precision.

There are no post-traumatic repercussions to Michele’s attack – her flashbacks are laced with curiosity rather than distress. Exhibiting a cold rationality that mimics her exquisitely composed appearance, she takes the event in her stride, calmly checking the house each time she comes home in the evening but without the customary blonde Hitchcockian apprehension.

Added to this disturbingly unhistrionic portrait of a rape is the revelation that this elegant, ironic, straight-shooting woman is the daughter of Charles Leblanc, a notorious 1970s serial killer now living out his final years in jail. Leblanc’s crazed suburban rampage took place when Michele was ten and there is the vaguest implication that Michele was co-opted by him as his accomplice.

On the one hand, we are watching a film in which the protagonist is a caring mother (of a weak and aimless 20-something son), an affectionate ex-wife (of an intelligent, if unsuccessful novelist), and a trench-coated corporate entrepreneur with a robust social life who is the perfectly groomed epitome of chic.

Verhoeven exploits the sexual suspense genre and excuses that exploitation with an attention to detail that is sensitive and sophisticated.

On the other hand, Michele is a woman who lives forever guilty by association with a man who slaughtered dozens of innocents, a woman who both accommodates and flourishes through the cruel perversions of popular culture, who engages in affairs with married men, and who approaches her own rape with the shoulder shrug of a car bingle.

We track Michele’s life in the aftermath of the rape, the growing friendship with her religious neighbours (who insist on saying ‘grace’ at the dinner party she invites them to), her theatrical mother who announces her intention to marry her young boyfriend, her son’s complicated relationship with a brazen and vulgar woman. These are conventional elements of a conventional life, and yet in Verhoeven’s meticulously mischievous hands, we are enthralled by seamless tonal shifts from horror to satire, by turns amused, aghast and intrigued. The rape is placed neatly away from the action but hovers throughout like an insidious and sinister cloud.

Most masterful is Verhoeven’s ability to exploit the sexual suspense genre and excuse that exploitation with an attention to detail that is sensitive and sophisticated. It’s exciting to watch a film in which the moral status-quo is upended at every turn and where our judgement is suspended by our engagement with characters who may not be “nice” but are pervasively human.

Behind the bourgeois facades are fascinating questions about our psychological burdens and the ingenious solutions we find to free ourselves.

Michele places “truth” above diplomacy, a priority that frequently discombobulates our sense of what is right. In her fidelity to truthfulness, even when it flouts the social norms, is she a better person for eschewing hypocrisy or a worse one? If a woman finds a perverse satisfaction in rape, is it appropriate to judge her or accept her predilection as part of the tapestry of human complexity?

On a meta-level, Verhoeven also asks us to engage with complex philosophical and psychological questions about vigilantism and justice, as well as whether our adult lives simply play out the traumas of our early years. Michele is a success symbol who is nevertheless captive to her past.

In watching Elle we may fool ourselves that we are watching a sometimes schlocky Euro-trash sexploitation suspense, but behind those bourgeois facades are fascinating questions about our psychological burdens and the sometimes ingenious solutions we find to free ourselves.

2 responses to “Elle movie review: a disturbingly unhistrionic portrait of a rape

  1. Having now seen “Elle” I am fascinated by the reviews and statements that suggest the rape is, in C.C. Ford’s words, “placed neatly away from the action.” Without wanting to give away the plot, this is misleading, and “Elle” is a brutal film because of it.

  2. There were a few things that seemed ‘out of place’ depending on perspective.
    Death of both parents
    ‘Dark angel’ quote, video game context
    Simplicity of ‘tortured soul’ wrap up from widowed wife of sexual aggression perpetrator
    Seemingly inconclusive paternal line in sons new offspring
    The vast amount of specific serious religious references
    The mild lesbianism future connotations

    Were these mild plot intrigues, or were they trying to make as a combined statement some ulterior point about the way in which society works

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *