The high-brow-baiting artistry of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle may seem like atonement for the defiantly low-brow American films he unchained on America between 1987 and 1997. But beneath its harsh austerity lies a film as extraordinarily carnal, deliciously primitive, and totally untamed as anything he’s yet directed, a work that shreds pulpy shards of equivocal, morally-grey human desire in every direction. Make no mistake: those wandering into the domain of emotionally-clipped art-cinema must discover that even the highest-raised brow is not enough to protect you from the Verhoeven-touch. Returning after a decade out of commission, the director utilizes art-cinema’s pretensions and impudently explode them, propelling the niceties of French cinema away in a centrifugal mass of uncertainty. A morally flammable film, Elle catches fire because of rather than in spite of its chilly, seemingly-antiseptic demeanor.
It’s also a revenge fantasy, a revenge-rape fantasy, for god’s sake, which is practically the most lurid genre in the books, as well as the genre most likely to cloister its base-level appeal away underneath a mist of legitimacy-restoring decorum, a sense of customary, compulsory reasonability that Elle rips into with savage glee. It also wastes no time getting to business. While Michele LeBlanc’s (Isabelle Huppert, in arguably her plumbest role ever) rape itself is elliptically experienced a handful of times in various imaginative states throughout the film, the blunt, almost monosyllabic tactility of the framing and the cutting in the first scene – the initial traumatic experience – are unmistakably alienating. While most Euro-art films satiate subliminal lust will hiding underneath the masquerade of strict, austere sullenness – teasing us with erotic themes while pretending they are sex-less, anti-erotic concoctions – Elle so often admits to enjoying itself that the gravity of the rape itself is without question. Rather than hiding titillation beneath repression, Elle admits to titillation and then self-reflexively interrogates itself for its desire. It’s a truly inquisitive motion picture.
Elle also never conforms to a male gaze. The reason some feminists may disagree with Elle is that it also does not essentialize the female gaze by packaging it through conventionally respectable idioms like some motion pictures labelled feminist (a la Wonder Woman). Rather than bland, pat liberal statements about sexual empowerment, with Michele as the “good” girl dispatched by a “bad” guy, Elle occupies a perfectly liminal position between multiple waves of feminism. It exposes potentially-irreconcilable limits of either sex-positive or sex-negative feminism, imploding the dichotomy as it wavers between validating Michele’s burgeoning desire to be raped again and its own skepticism about whatever joy it derives in conforming to this hoary stereotype.
More importantly, it’s cheerily murky about Elle’s belief system without ever withholding its sympathies from her. For instance, we witness Michele not a day or two after her rape pushing the designers at the video game company she owns/runs to make the female “victim’s” pangs of sexual orgasm more luscious and world-shaking when the player-controlled gargoyle rapes that victim. Is she a hypocrite? Most films would make her out to be, or to condition our sympathy with her on her complete inability to be complicit with any form of misogyny. Elle vehemently disagrees with her on multiple occasions, or at least suggests that she is complicit with sexism in wider society. But it only does so in service of a radical reorientation of the discourse around rape cinema, arguing that a woman being complicit with wider sexism is not an argument that she is at fault for rape when the culture that allows her and conditions her to think this way is the male-dominated culture that grants mostly men the social agency to rape in the first place.
Verhoeven’s film is excoriatingly discombobulated like that, mirthfully resisting totalizing assumptions about sex and violence and shifting perspectives of Michele on a dime without, crucially, ever implying that she is responsible for her own rape. Elle is neither a libertarian, sex-positive beast nor a more concerned, comparatively-policing creature, but an odyssey of personal desire that gloriously entangles itself in the ethical conundrums and moral quandaries of its belief system. But beneath its progressive-mocking implications lies a film that defiantly wrings more complicated notions than mere empowerment out of its moral conundrum. Michele is not only a voyeur toward her neighbor but a cruel and brutal women whose icy determination validates her general disinterest in and abuse of the emotions of other people. She’s a “bitch” basically, to call on a stereotype Elle intentionally flaunts. But as opposed to stacking the deck in Michele’s favor by resorting to liberal sentiments about female victims or female agents, both predicated on comparatively “positive” views of women, Verhoeven’s film is among the precious few films, art-house or mainstream alike, that do not homogenize morality by omitting questions of social position from the question of what is moral for each person.
Put simply, Elle wallows in contradiction, the central one being that Michele both fantasizes about rape and is traumatized by her rape. But Verhoeven, often labelled a misogynist in his self-deprecating, progressively-regressive (or regressively-progressive) Hollywood films, concedes that the two aren’t contradictions at all. Most liberal films implicitly suggest that victims of empowered oppressors are only truly victims if they hold fast to uncomplicated feelings and exhibit pure moral disgust toward their oppressors. Endorsing a respectability politics structure, these films thereby strangle the full gamut of female expression by prescribing a series of “correct” or “responsible” automatic reactions. They focus on female reaction to rape rather than the power dynamics which condition and define the terms of female reactions. Michele is the iciest of cinematic ice queens, but Elle suggests that her personality should have nothing to do with the legitimacy of her rape. She may be vicious, routinely policing the sexuality of every woman around her, but she herself is still a woman, and she still occupies a position of relative lack of power compared to the men around her. If women can be agents of sexual oppression, that in itself makes them victims since they aren’t choosing to sexually-police in a vacuum or arbitrarily; they’re coopting misogynist social norms in service of attaining some power over others through the only social rhetorics that other people (mostly men) afford them.
Paradoxically, then, by fetishizing the victim’s response, we as a society do not usually strive to actually empathize with the possibilities inherent in these emotions. We simply, oppressively categorize them as valid or invalid. “Valid” responses to rape do not include fantasizing about being raped again, but David Birke’s wonderful Elle screenplay stakes out a prophetic wager and then demands its own value by virtue of its sheer formal craftsmanship: a film can interiorize the mind of a rape victim in all its potential ambiguities and brazen eccentricities while accepting that the particularities of that mindset should hold no sway over the larger social norms which justify men who rape. In fact, Elle’s commitment to not holding fast to respectable norms about valid reaction to rape extends to alienating its own audience in the back-half after Michele has “discovered” her rapist’s identity, only for the film to pervert mystery tropes more adroitly than Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman on the similar question of sexual assault. While that latter film counterpoises the process-orientation of its mystery with the deepening of its themes even as a surfeit of the former diffuses the latter, Elle is deliciously promiscuous with when it cares about its mystery and when it doesn’t.
Or rather, whether the ultimate value of the film should be locating the rapist at all. While Michele proclaims that she wishes to uncover her assailant, the film diffuses this issue throughout its first half – most scenes have little nominally to do with this question – and it eliminates it in the back-half. The screenplay suggests that finding the man may be false satisfaction since the structuring fear of Elle is the negative potentiality for any man to be her rapist – and to be complicit with a system that condones assault of various forms some less corporeal than other – rather than the factual presence that one man in particular happened to actualize this desire and physically rape Michele.
In other words, Elle taunts us: if we really, truly believe that rape is a question of socially-constituted power dynamics that condition rape rather than the mass delusion that rape is simply the question of one rapist’s personal desire, we should also consider the limits of a film that is merely a mystery about a woman locating her rapist. Or a woman turning over that rapist to the police, which Michele does not do. Dismissed by the police as a child because her father included her in his own criminal activities, which included becoming France’s most notorious serial killer, she is skeptical of police intervention and decides to take actions into her own hands by locating her rapist for herself. But when she does discover who raped her, roughly halfway through the film, her actions, or lack thereof, refract the film’s other concerns besides questions of comeuppance and retribution. Or rather, the film is aware that Michele’s desire isn’t the only question on the table.
Among others, Michele works around her mother (Judith Magre) who is engaged to a much younger gigolo. Her son (Jonas Bloquet), often unsure of himself, and who, like Michele’s mother, Michele is mildly verbally abusive to. Her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), himself engaged to a significantly younger student, and who Michele is also critical of. Adapted from the book “Oh…” by Philippe Dijan, other figures are her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) who Michele is a voyeur to, and her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), whose husband Michele is sexually involved with as well. Many viewers will dismiss Michele’s sexual trauma because she admonishes everyone around her and engages in other promiscuous activity. But Birke and Verhoeven are testing us, stacking the deck against her to question the limits of our empathy as well as presaging the ease with which we return to normative precepts about her “getting what’s coming to her”.
All of this could curdle or keel over as empty provocation, but the sheer artistry of Elle counteracts any claim of arbitrary immorality. The screenplay is a rumination on diamond-cut desire, with human need and want reflected in many conflicting directions. The film’s exploration of its own confusion about its politics is not an inability but a refusal to adopt a stable or monolithic perspective. Anne Dudley’s strikingly acerbic score, all harsh edges masquerading as more welcoming tones, embraces Hitchcock without overly-underlining the suspense or the themes. Stephane Fontane’s choked lens weaves a cloud of visual uncertainty. Job ter Burg’s editing skitters around dialogue and daringly plays up the comic implications of its brutal, unexpected cuts to absurd images that arrive out of nowhere and retroactively comment on the themes of the film. And, centering it all is Huppert, who invites every possible criticism of her normal persona as a frigid, biting, wintry, passive-aggressive bourgeois French woman and strips each of those claims for parts, remobilizing them as character-birthing oxygen for a portrait of a women who is simultaneously too bruised by her past to display her wounds and to function without them, a figure whose every interaction is a Molotov of innuendo, intimation, and insinuation.
Elle is diabolically clever. In lieu of a veil of propriety, Elle offers pushy insolence and cheeky, brazen tastelessness. It boisterously mocks chilly, bourgeois art-sex films by glorifying its crude sexuality rather than tastefully teasing us with it as a badge of lazy maturity. It wickedly embraces stereotypes and then twists them into its own fiercely unapologetic vision. It spends its running time not apologizing for its stereotypes but surveying and inspecting them all while defeating any semblance of easy, programmatic political classification or social categorization. Certainly, the film is replete with grotesque ironies, but harder still is the gravid magnitude at their center. Elle is Verhoeven still punching below the belt, still gloriously unhinged in his film’s monstrous, misshapen anti-majesty.