Elle

I had always been curious to see this, given always-provocative, always-satirical and intelligent director Paul Verhoven, and the sensitive subject matter, but I became keen after a friend of mine saw it first and said “You are the only person I would recommend it to.” Then I saw it, and, what can I say? I kind of loved it.

The plot summary as circulated is that Michele of the title gets raped, then “tracks her assailant down” and engages in a “cat and mouse game” with him. Well, not really. I would describe it as a dysfunctional family comedy with a particularly fucked-up dysfunctional family. It does open with Michele’s rape, as watched impassively by her cat, but her “tracking down her rapist” is just one subplot, and what she does when she realizes who it is [and what she has done before she knew who it was] are not incomprehensible, just not at all what we might expect.

It’s difficult to go very far in at all without spoilers, but we can talk about the overall characters, tone and shape. Huppert is delightful. I’ve never really loved her, but you have to appreciate that she takes these roles, and I also found her delightfully intelligent and brutally direct in the film. One of the side effects of her rape [we can’t really know what she was like beforehand] is that she is quite unapologetically honest with people, and the aplomb with which she carries it off is very fun. She’s also tender and vulnerable in parts, so it’s not just one-note.

There is also her mother, who has had extensive facial work done and pays for the companionship of male escorts. Across the street lives a handsome banker and his very Catholic wife. Michele flirts with the husband, who indicates that perhaps his religious wife doesn’t quite supply what he needs. Michele is co-founder of a video game company that creates violent games in which women are brutalized. After the rape, Michele wants the games to be made even more violent. She is having an affair with her best friend’s husband. She has a grown son who works in fast food, and whose pregnant girlfriend expects money from Michele, but is quite an amusingly unpleasant character. And there’s her unsuccessful novelist ex-husband, who is now dating a younger yoga instructor who likes his books. As I said, the whole atmosphere is that of a dysfunctional family comedy, very hilarious in parts with lots of comedy, black and pitch-black, and despite some of the subject matter, it’s a good time at the movies.

When I told another friend I had seen it, he said he had heard it was “misogynistic.” Hmm. Well, it is “misogynistic” if by that you mean that it doesn’t follow stringently rigid rules of how a woman MUST react and what she MUST feel and what behaviors she MUST follow after being raped. This is a movie that plays in the gray area—which is what makes it interesting—and if you feel that a woman who is raped MUST hate her assailant and CANNOT have felt anything but disgust at her attack, and other such rigid, black-and-white views, this is definitely not the movie for you. But the fact is that Michele is a very strong, intelligent woman who is very much in charge of her life—while struggling and bewildered like a human, although perhaps not like a fully-liberated, bulletproof mainstream movie heroine. She is a successful businesswoman who founded her own business and doesn’t take any shit. She’s takes control of the majority of her sexual life, and certainly seems to get some enjoyment out of it. She isn’t in the thrall of any man, and the movie makes clear that she doesn’t need any man. So you can decide for yourself whether it is misogynistic or not.

That said, if you like black comedies, like French films, like provocative films, and don’t mind a little veering off the established path with your sexuality in films, I say go! It might be the feel-good film of the year, for a certain set, with a particular dementia.

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6 thoughts on “Elle

  1. I suspect that before the rape Michelle had the same demeanor, as nobody seems to register any sort of change in her until she offhandedly ticks off the event to her ex, bf, and lover at dinner. This movie has me in knots; Huppert is commanding, but not someone I care to get to know or even observe, and while it’s interesting to see a story that refuses to toe a line about what the aftermath of a rape MUST be (for everyone! even the fictional!), it seemed more designed to provoke rather than to compel or illuminate or blackly amuse *while* swimming in dangerous waters. Or – God help me – maybe I have enough overlap with Michelle that her actions strike me as peculiar but not astounding.

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    • Interesting comment, as always, but what struck me from it is that, while the movie does seem to be entirely designed to provoke, maybe that’s a worthwhile aim when we have come to a place where real life, entertainment and media have become so intermingled… that the mere fact that Michele’s reaction doesn’t follow the expected norm is enough to make this movie shocking. I was very struck by my friend’s friend automatically judging the film as “misogynist” because Michele is not ostensibly devastated by her attack, which reveals the strange logic that it is more “feminist” for Michele to be a) broken, or b) broken but a tough “survivor.” So Verhoven may just be kicking a hornet’s nest, but it’s a fascinating nest to kick.

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      • Agreed that maybe what the world needs now is provocation, sweet provocation. I just prefer when the provocation isn’t the foot a film leads with. I think Verhoeven rattles a lot more minds – including a broader swath of those who need a shake-up the most – with his subversive, less baldly topical entertainments.

        And yeah, labeling the film as misogyny for reasons given is unfairly reductive at best.

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