Over the last few decades, but especially since her role as a masochistic music teacher in Michael Haneke’s La pianiste (2001) aka The Piano Teacher, petite powerhouse Isabelle Huppert has proven herself to be one of the giants of contemporary theater and cinema and, for my money, she’s currently the greatest living actress. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a thoroughly Huppert-themed autumn thanks to catching her wonderful leading performance in the experimental play Phaedra(s), at BAM, and her starring turns in Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir aka Things to Come and, of course, Verhoeven’s Elle, both of which I was able to see at this year’s New York Film Festival with Huppert and the respective directors in attendance.
Her prominence as an actress could be chalked up to sheer talent — she’s the recipient of BAFTA, Cannes, and César awards, among numerous others — and to work ethic, as she’s appeared in well over one hundred films, and her resume boasts collaborations with some of the world’s greatest directors, like Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke, Maurice Pialat, Claire Denis, Godard, Robbe-Grillet, and so on. But for me, what makes her so revelatory is her career-long emphasis on challenging roles that often quite graphically and explicitly play with notions of gender and sexuality; many of her characters are driven to explore things like masochism, incest, trauma, violence, obsession, and madness. For the majority of her films, it’s difficult to imagine other actresses matching her shattering portrayals of emotional and physical vulnerability, debasement, and abjection.
And such is the case with Elle; not only is it unlikely that another actress (with a few exceptions, such as perhaps Adjani) could have reached the same heights, but the film’s destiny was ultimately redirected because of a lack of interest from other performers. Verhoeven initially wanted the film to be set in an industrial American city like Detroit or Chicago. He had the source material — Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh…. — translated into English and hired an American screenwriter, David Birke, but Verhoeven was unable to find any American actress willing to take on the challenge. During their Q&A together in New York, Huppert revealed that she had her eye on the role of Michèle for quite some time and it seems fated that it ultimately wound up in her lap.
I’ve seen Elle — meaning “she” or “her” in French — alternately described as a rape-revenge drama, thriller, and comedy, though none of these descriptors really quite do the film justice. In their review of the film The Telegraph even questioned: “Is Elle the first comedy of manners about rape?” At its most basic level, Elle is about a rape, a woman’s attempts to uncover her attacker’s identity, and, in a roundabout way, her quest for revenge. At times, it is a black comedy, a family melodrama, and a stylish erotic thriller; it’s all of these things, but not overwhelmingly more so one than the other. Part of the film’s brilliance is that it’s difficult to nail down and — be forewarned — there will be spoilers in this essay. I’m not going to give away the identity of the rapist, though this is revealed relatively early on and isn’t difficult to figure out, but it would be impossible to discuss some of the film’s key themes without revealing a few things about the plot. Though, with that said, this is a film with many surprises — not inane twists, which I despise, but both large and small reveals that contribute immensely to the overall experience — and it is certainly one that will keep you on your toes until the bitter end. Consider yourselves warned.
In some sense, Elle is a psychodrama where psychological issues play out however improbably in the realm of the physical. Though it doesn’t overtly wander into the fantastic or the supernatural, there is something about it that isn’t quite realism. This isn’t the year’s only female-fronted revenge film, and both tonally and in terms of plot, it provides an interesting contrast with something like starkly realist Czech film Já, Olga Hepnarová, where the downtrodden protagonist (Michalina Olszanska) gets very public, violent revenge for the numerous subtle injustices and humiliations heaped upon her throughout her life. But if Olga is at the bottom rung of the social ladder, constantly ostracized at least in part because of her gender and sexuality, Elle’s Michèle (Huppert) is confidently perched at the top in four-inch designer heels.
Michèle is the owner of a successful video game company along with her close friend and partner Anna (Anne Consigny). The company’s designers are working on a new fantasy and horror-themed game that Michèle insists is neither violent nor sexual enough — she says with disgust that “the orgasmic convulsions are too timid” — and she forces them to work long hours to up the ante. This just happens to coincide with a brutal attack one afternoon in her Parisian home, where she is raped by a masked intruder. Afterwards, she calmly cleans up the mess in the house and, instead of calling the police, who she doesn’t trust, she decides to figure out her rapist’s identity on her own. But her life is full of complicated relationships with men, including the disgruntled designers at her firm, her pathetic ex-husband (Charles Berling), Anna’s husband (Christian Berkel) with whom she is having a secret affair, and her useless son (Jonas Bloquet) whose pushy girlfriend is pregnant. Meanwhile, she begins a flirtation with her married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) and it is revealed that her father, who has spent most of his life in prison for some undisclosed reason that may be connected to Michèle herself, is up for parole.
Though the subject certainly does not appeal to everyone, in general some of my favorite genre cinema involves complicated depictions of sexuality and confronts the difficult, often intertwining notions of desire, fantasy, and consent. Elle is by no means the first film to tread that path, though it does so in a far more mature and even restrained (yes, I said restrained) way than a number of its contemporaries. While Huppert herself already explored some of these themes recently in films like La pianiste (2001) and Ma mère (2004), Elle belongs alongside titles like Marnie (1964), Il portiere di notte (1974), Histoire d’O (1975), La bête (1975), Dressed to Kill (1980), Las edades de Lulú (1990), ¡Átame! (1990), and Szamanka (1996), among many more, where the concept of rape is turned on its head, often by female protagonists themselves. And while many of these film tread a complicated path where assault, victimization, and survival are concerned, Elle is relatively unique in that its female protagonist is a rape survivor and the defining act of the film is a essentially a rape, but Michèle refuses to allow this trauma and violence to define her.
While I went into the film believing it was going to be a tale of revenge for a rape — a theme Verhoeven touched upon earlier in his career with something like 1995’s Showgirls — the actual approach is far more complicated: she gets to know her rapist and even involves him in her life. Revenge becomes an almost accidental by-product of this relationship — where violence admittedly seems inevitable, even desired — but it is not Michèle’s end goal. That is not to say that the film necessarily presents her as sympathetic to his aims, or as someone who condones the rape itself, but it imbues her with a rational, rather than emotional core, and a subtle need to know the whys and wherefores of what drives her rapist. She becomes strangely like Lady Macbeth, if the infamous wife of Shakespeare’s cursed king was really capable of understanding the price and consequences of violence. Above all, she is willing to sacrifice.
And though Michèle refuses to allow the rape to define her life, she is ultimately marked by numerous acts of violence. One of the film’s central mysteries, and one which I will not spoil, involves her father, but her demeanor in the face of all of it is cold, rational, deliberate. In general, Verhoeven’s career is concerned with strong female protagonists, but Michèle is not some psychopathic dragon lady — this is a universe apart from Basic Instinct (1992) — and she remains sympathetic, likable, and is often surprisingly funny, a testament to Huppert’s deeply nuanced performance that keeps Michèle from being just another caricature of a survivor of violence driven to violence. In one of the most unexpectedly funny moments, she casually breaks the news of her rape to Anna, Anna’s husband, and Michèle’s ex while they’re all at dinner together. There are actually several incredibly well-directed dinner sequences throughout the film that weave back in the family melodrama theme and are all important moments that betray some of Michèle’s inexorable true self.
She maintains this blend of rigid control and wry humor even in the face of some horrific events and, curiously, rather than being defined by the many men around her, she defines them. In a way refreshingly free of judgment, Verhoeven gradually discloses the fact that she has had sexual relationships with nearly all the male characters in the film. She is clearly a flawed being — which the film seems to present as an inevitable outcome of existing in the world — but she is also allowed to be smarter, more successful, braver, and sexier (and with Huppert in her early 60s, no less). The brilliant alternate title of notorious rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Day of the Woman, would be far more fitting here. And where I think a Hollywood film would punish Michèle for her ruthless ambition, violent past, and sexual promiscuity, Verhoeven knows better. As Michèle says in the film, essentially explaining some of her own behavior, “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.” This is also a loose justification of her actions in the face of the fact that the film’s numerous male characters, many of whom she genuinely cares for, are unable to truly ever satisfy her, whether emotionally or sexually.
And if this complex, rewarding film’s achievements can be simplified, it’s that Elle is so liberating simply because it refuses to reduce Michèle to victimhood, not only in the context of her rape but in terms of her life as a whole, and shows all the ways in which she herself refuses the label. And if you think this is a film about a woman giving in to her rapist, I think that says a lot more about you than it does about Verhoeven or his brilliant work. Bold, courageous, and utterly human, Elle is rich and varied; and while it doesn’t shy away from graphic sexuality or violence, it is remarkably well balanced and Huppert is obviously as comfortable with wit and humor as she is with baring the raw, unspeakable, and often ugly parts of the human experience. The film surprises up until its last moments and even delivers up a cautiously optimistic ending— for all the film’s female characters, actually— where Michèle and Anna walk off through a cemetery, arm in arm, moving forward with their lives together despite it all, as it is implied they always have done and always will do.