Elle has been described as ‘a rape revenge comedy’, which seems unlikely, and also as ‘post-feminist’, which is likely as, in my experience, that simply means anything goes so long as you acknowledge that feminism has happened. The film stars Isabelle Huppert, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance, and who has repeatedly said that her character, Michèle, is not ‘a victim’ although, as you have to watch Michèle being raped or near-raped several times, I don’t know how we can be so sure about that. Perhaps I’m just not sufficiently in touch with my ‘post-feminist’ side to fully comprehend.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Total Recall, Showgirls) and written by David Birke from a novel by Philippe Djian — correct me if I am wrong, seriously, but have any women ever made a ‘rape revenge’ film, comic or otherwise? — it opens with a black screen, a scream, then the sound of sexual congress. The camera then enters a doorway and we see a woman being raped by a man in a ski mask. He is grunting and rutting. Her shirt is torn and her skirt is pulled up to her waist. He wipes himself down with her knickers before escaping through the French window. Meanwhile, her cat, with its unblinking eyes, watches with the sort of icy feline detachment that makes me, has always made me, and will continue to make me, very much a dog person.
This is Michèle, who lives in a grand Parisian house, which at least makes a change from a cabin in the woods. Michèle shares her cat’s icy detachment. She coolly clears up, and takes a bath where she dispassionately observes the blood from her vagina rising up through the bubbles. She orders sushi. She does not call the police. Instead, she goes to bed holding a hammer.
Michèle, we learn, runs a successful video-games company that itself seems to specialise in sexual violence against women. Harder, faster, louder, she says, on being shown the latest game, which involves a monster with phallic tentacles taking a princess from behind. No one in Elle behaves as you would expect anyone to behave. Out to dinner with friends, she announces that she has been raped, detailing the circumstances, and there is a brief hiatus in the conversation, admittedly, but no one ever asks her about it again. You’d think they might. But no.
Michèle replays the rape in her mind, so we have to watch it repeatedly. The rapist returns, until she has sex with him consensually, which means what exactly? She was up for it all along? If there is comedy, it is mostly in the form of social satire and mostly it is cruel. Michèle’s mother, for instance, is a Botox-ed grotesque who appears to exist solely so that we can laugh at her.
The compelling Huppert is, indeed, compelling. That is, compellingly composed. But she is also every single negative female stereotype: controlling mother, bitchy ex-wife, selfish daughter, seducer of husbands. We don’t know what motivates her except in one instance. She didn’t call the police due to a horrific act once committed by her father. (And she’s not a victim?) This has also been described as a ‘psychological thriller’ but it is hardly that. For example, when the rapist’s identity is revealed, she simply pulls his mask off and voilà, there he is. I would also put it to you that the revenge, when it arrives, is not enacted by Michèle. It is enacted by a man. Perhaps this is ‘post-feminist’ revenge?
This film is beautiful to look at, but if it has anything to say about sex, violence, desire, it all passed me by. Rape should be shown on screen, if only to challenge it, but if this does any of that challenging, that too passed me by. Ultimately, you will have to make up your own mind. I have made up mine. But maybe ‘post-chauvinists’ will like it?