[major plot details will be discussed; please refrain from reading unless you’ve seen the film]
Although misleadingly structured as a suspense thriller, Paul Verhoeven’s latest film is a subdued character study of one woman and her relations with the people around her. One of them happens to be her rapist, and although the film begins with a deliberately ambiguous soundscape (only later revealed as Michèle’s first rape), it is not a film about rape, although it is in the representation of rape and its aftermath that it becomes the most problematic.
The first part of the film revolves around the discovery of the identity of Michèle’s rapist, while at the same time establishing her various interactions with the people in her life (her son, her mother, her ex-husband etc). The first crucial piece of information on Michèle herself comes via her reaction to the traumatic event at the beginning of the film: she sweeps the broken china off the floor, takes a bubble bath (where a red stain suggests that she has been menstruating), and then orders takeaway for her dinner.
The viewer is initially perplexed by this calm, seemingly cold exterior: why doesn’t she call the police? It is gradually revealed that her choices are determined as much by her character as they are by her past: she is the daughter of an infamous, convicted serial killer, and her childhood was stigmatized by public scrutiny and humiliation. Although it is only cursorily referred to as the reason of not notifying the police, there is no doubt that she would rather avoid any contact with the police no matter what the reason.
Her reaction, however, is neither incomprehensible nor unjustifiable. People respond to trauma in myriad different ways, and dismissing it, or rushing to resume the normal course of one’s life as if nothing had happened, are all coping strategies, no matter what their effectiveness. That is why it is difficult to accept some critics’ enthusiasm for Elle as “the smartest, most honest and empowering film about rape”, while at the same time taking the moral high ground over the supposed feminists who might “denounce it for showing a rape victim refusing to report her rapist” or for the fact that Michèle “doesn’t show sufficient rage”. Neither reporting nor sufficient rage are the exclusive valid reactions to trauma, however.
Michèle only discusses the event, or rather announces it, in a matter-of-fact tone, during a dinner date with her ex-husband, her best friend Anna and her husband, who is also Michèle’s lover. None of these relations are simple or straightforward. Michèle has a lover, an ex-husband of whom she is extremely jealous and possessive (going as far as to meet his new lover, a much younger yoga instructor, at her work), and a married neighbor she lusts after, and masturbates while secretly watching from her window.
Michèle may come across as heartless (the caracter has been described as intransigeant and pitiless, for example, at least when it comes to business), and Isabelle Huppert brings her usual cold demeanor to the part. She is, nevertheless, an anxious mother and daughter, that supports financially both her son and mother, even though she disagrees (very vocally, too) with their life choices. She is fiercely protective of the son who does not seem able to control his own life, and shows exasperation towards her mother’s antics who insists on dating (and marrying) a much younger man who is obviously after her daughter’s money. She also refuses to see her father, whom she hates, until it is too late – a fact she revels in, since the monster has dominated her entire existence (there are hints that she and her mother have been the targets of various attacks over the years, just because they were related to him).
Michèle is also, curiously perhaps, loyal to Anna, her best friend and partner, with whom she owns a videogame company. This might seem contradictory, as she is sleeping with her husband behind her back, but Huppert manages to bring all the meaninglessness and banality of the affair to the fore. The affair does not damage, as one might expect, but rather strengthens the friendship between the two women, suggesting that their bond goes much deeper than an unfaithful spouse (the last scene should not be construed as tilting towards lesbianism or even suggesting that men are unnecessary).
Michèle’s social position is intriguing. She is clearly where she’s at as a result of hard work, and not family privilege. That is why she is protective of her work, and her insistence on money is not venal, but comes from an instinct of self preservation. She is competent at work, steering like a captain, and unperturbed by personal attacks and criticism. The film, refreshingly, refrains from depicting her with all the negative stereotypes associated with businesswomen. Her no fuss, hands-on attitude even earns her an antagonist early on in the film, that serves to mislead the viewer as to the possible identity of her rapist.
The nature of Michèle’s work has been changed from a screenwriting agency in the book (Philippe Djian’s Oh…) to a videogame company in the film. This choice of profession is particularly significant given that the gaming industry (and its fans) are, to a certain degree at least, thoroughly misogynistic. Recent cases of rape and death threats against female video game developers or the backlash following Anita Sarkeesian’s video “Women as Background Decoration” demonstrate this amply. This is where the film’s stance towards sexual assault becomes deliberately provocative. When Michèle, during a meeting on the progress of a videogame her company is about to launch, reviews a rape scene worrying only that the orgasm sounds the female victim is making are not convincing enough, Verhoeven stretches both the protagonist’s and the film’s credibility. Is this jarring scene meant as some sort of satire of the ways sexual violence is casually represented in videogames? It seems rather to serve as a perverse clin d’œil towards the viewer, operating a parallel between Michèle-as-viewer of the fictional, videogame rape scene and the actual viewer of the film since Michèle’s rape is as fictional to us as the cartoon’s rape is to Michèle, the film suggests.
The film starts to tread on dangerous ground with the revelation of the rapist’s identity. When Michèle, during the second attack, manages to pull the ski mask off his face, the fact that it’s Patrick, the neighbor she’s been attracted to, shocks her as much as the viewer – it also, unmistakably, suggests that she has been subconsciously fantasizing about her rapist all along and her subsequent behavior only offers further confirmation. She actively seeks out her attacker and a third encounter ensues, where she lets herself be lured into a trap that – outrageously – culminates into sadomasochistic sexual intercourse. The real problem here lies in the conflation of the identity of rapist and male object of desire. We live in a culture that still, and to a great extent, confuses rape fantasies with actual rape. The film portrays Michèle as a woman who willingly steps into a situation where she has to relive her assault, despite previously fantasizing about bludgeoning her rapist to death. How is it then possible to affirm that the film does not fall into the trap of presenting women as “secretly dreaming of being raped“, or that Michèle takes control and turns from “victim to predator” in the process?
Even though her rapist eventually dies, the director takes pains to stage this as deliberately ambiguous (the scene starts as if the viewer interrupts it by his presence, only to be interrupted later by Patrick’s murderer): did she orchestrate it? was it accidental? was it what she really wanted? We shall never know. Instead of the ambiguity transforming the film into a richer viewing experience, it leaves the heroine dangling. Even the out of the blue comment by the supra-religious wife of the deceased at the end of the film, implying she has been privy to her husband’s ‘proclivities’ from the get go, does not add much to the narrative or significantly alter its meaning. The film seems content at having toyed with the viewer, perhaps not taking itself too seriously. It’s just that the issues it tackles are deathly serious, and sitting on the fence serves them ill.