Right from its establishing image, Elle shocks.
That the rape of the film’s protagonist, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is heard before seen – and in such a way that it could yet be consensual – addresses straight from the top the themes of complicity that will prove so directly challenging throughout the film. That this opening audio gasps over the name of its director, Paul Verhoeven, is equally telling. The man who brought the world Basic Instinct is back after a decade’s hiatus with a bang.
A black cat surrogates the audience through the rape as the passive onlooker engaged in pure voyeuristic spectatorship. Perhaps the most shocking element of the sequence, however, comes once her assailant has fled the scene. Michèle’s response to the rape is startlingly nonconformist to any reasonable expectation: she tidies up and get on with her day. The broken china, representative of the violated shells of so many cinematic victims, is swept up and disposed with. Michèle belongs to the French coffee house culture where, here literally, the cups are as empty as the society to which they are paradigmatic. It’s a world uncomfortably alive in parallel to its sadistic reality, but one with the determination to simply carry on. Through each and every torment that befalls her, Michèle never fails to rebound as the embodiment of an exquisite chic. Her hair never out of place, her sunglasses always at hand and apartment unfailingly designer. When Judith Magre’s Irène, Michèle’s mother – a botoxed, Joan Collins type with toyboy in tow – later asks if anything has happened awry, Michèle replies: ‘No, nothing special’. Indeed, she withholds mention of the incident until in conversation at a well-to-do restaurant. Michèle drops her bombshell as though announcing that she’d recently changed toiletry brands in a scene peaking with the delivery of the darkly comic line: ‘I’d give it a moment before popping that’ to their bottle-wielding waiter. Elle is one part psychological rape-revenge thriller, the other riotously funny satire. Be prepared.
Were the traumas of assault and ceaseless faux pas of her mother not enough, Michèle is also burdened with the men of her life: a psychotic father imprisoned for a series of sadistic murders in the 70s, in which Michèle is somehow implicated; a half-wit son in a quasi-abusive relationship with his philanderous and pregnant girlfriend; and a weak and penniless ex-husband. The plot, based on Philippe Djian’s novel: Oh…, is one deeply psychoanalytic. Elle‘s is a world heightened and tense; women are dangerous within it. The threat of castration is tangible. Whilst Michèle’s rapist will only attack when granted a position of power, her son’s partner gains dominance through her child, Freud’s phallus-baby epitomised. Some have already proclaimed the film misogynistic but that’s far too simplistic a response. Verhoeven seems to tempt you into discomfort throughout. Michèle is the co-CEO of a hyperreal video gaming company manufacturing products that disgust and yet strike close to home with the likes of Warcraft. Naked women exploitatively pose for photographs in Michèle’s workplace; a crude reading might suggest that she were inviting her own twisted fate. Complicit in the promulgation of sexual violence. Such an interpretation, however, would fall into the trap of proposing that this is a life a woman may not lead; that she must be chaste and adhere to Hitchcock’s femme fatale. The sexual consanguinities in Elle are so entangled, so slippery, that it’s often nigh on impossible to know where to stand. As Michèle, Huppert is from the start the automatic earner of our sympathies, but such ease is challenged as a far more complex character emerges, one terribly mistreated and yet always in control.
Verhoeven’s direction is excellent, the script taught and production first rate, but Huppert is the main attraction. Elle est exceptionnelle.
I don’t know what disturbed me most about Elle: the brutal violence, the deeply controversial gender politics, or just how thoroughly I enjoyed the experience. Some are going to hate it, some, like me, will love it. Everyone will be talking about it.