Paul Verhoeven’s Elle begins mid-rape; the rape of its protagonist Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) by a man wearing a ski-mask, as a cat looks on, apparently unmoved. Once finished, the man flees and Michèle, with a puffy face and blood coming out of her vagina, picks herself up, cleans herself off, orders take out and carries on with her evening unfazed. We soon find out that she is hardly the type of woman that would ever cry out for help – and that if Verhoeven’s Elle is hardly the type of film about heroes and villains, it is even less a movie about victims, rape, or victims of rape. In fact, the provocation of the movie is that it turns its camera onto a world where rape is at once a horrific, violent act and an extremely common sexual fantasy. Another provocation is the following: if rape is an enforcement of the patriarchal system, then does female enjoyment of rape castrate the male?
Elle also eludes straightforward categorizations. Though many have defined it as a whodunnit and a revenge flick, Verhoeven’s movie is a far more complex patchwork of emotions and genres: it is a drama, a thriller, and even a dark comedy. The sum of the many subplots and characters for a depiction of the everyday life of a wealthy, powerful and independent woman. Hèlene is, in fact, in charge of her professional life, as the co-owner of a video gaming company, and of her family life. Though her family is fractured, she is the matriarchal glue that holds it together – and her influence does not end with members of her immediate family but covers an extended one as well: her slacker son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his abusive pregnant girlfriend, her ex-husband Richard (Laurent Lafitte) and her young yoga teacher girlfriend Hélène (Vimala Pons), her Botox-ed mother Irène (Judith Magre), her handsome married neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), and more. It also seems as if all these people are dependent on her, less due to her warmth and compassion, but rather for the opposite reasons, for her objective strength and sense of stability.
Yet, Verhoeven doesn’t allow her to come off as a perfect, sympathetic characters; indeed, many critics have even pointed her out as selfish and amoral. I like to think of her as a cat. Cinema has linked empowered women with cats since its early days – it is not impossible for instance to draw parallels with Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958), and find similarities between Huppert’s Michèle and Kim Novak’s Gil – and this reading also gives resonance to the fact that the first image of the film that appears on the screen is that of a black kitty. In fact, at times, Huppert seems to have integrated the mannerisms and behavioural patterns of a cat in her performance. Such reading is, in any case, far more interesting than the complex and bloody family backstory that has seemingly marked Hèlene, and which is progressively explored in Elle, whilst remaining one of the worst aspects of its narrative.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Huppert in the role of Michèle. Her charisma and her adaptability to any implausible event of the movie (Elle is the type of films where a viewer may impulsively expect a certain sequence to be a nightmare from which the protagonist will soon awaken) makes the film’s shifts in tone and mood seem credible. Her skill allows Elle to read like a discourse on a sexual power play and sexuality as a whole as deep and interesting as Foucault, and for her character to be as ambiguous as a subtle reincarnation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – in female form. It also allows Verhoeven to get away with murder quite comfortable; Elle escapes cinema’s traditional superficiality in dealing with delicate taboo subjects such as rape, orchestrating a symphony of observant suspicion, and only occasionally resorting to his usual proneness to excesses in the process. – ★★★★
ELLE || 2016, France / Germany / Belgium || Thriller || Directed by – Paul Verhoeven / Produced by – Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt / Written by – David Birke (based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Dijan / Music by – Anne Dudley / Cinematography – Stéphane Fontaine / Edited by – Job ter Burg / Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Arthur Mazet, Raphael Lenglet, Lucas Prisor / Running time: 130 mins.