Every Woman for Herself
by Genevieve Yue

Dir. Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany/Belgium, Sony Pictures Classics

Paul Verhoeven has said that no actress was brave enough to take the role of Michèle LeBlanc, the heroine of Elle, except Isabelle Huppert. On the face of it, nothing about this remark seems disingenuous. Huppert has made a career out of playing steely, fearless women, from the self-possessed prostitute of Godard’s Every Man for Himself (1980), to the icy music instructor with sadomasochist proclivities in The Piano Teacher (2001), to the plantation owner who will go down, on the wrong side of history, with her burning crops in Claire Denis’s White Material (2009). I saw Huppert in 2005 during her stage tour of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and watched in astonishment as she stood still, her fists clenching and unclenching, for nearly two hours. This is the Huppert—unshakable, intimidating, and so very game—that was chosen to play Michèle, a high-powered CEO of a video game company who, in the film’s first scene and shown multiple times thereafter, is raped. Yet there’s something disingenuous about the idea that Huppert was the only woman who would portray her, so much so that Verhoeven’s original plan of transplanting Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel Oh… to the United States had to be scrapped and returned to its native setting in France. Whether the report is true, and I have my doubts, it sets up the myth of the film’s incendiary subject matter—presumably too hot, too risky, too “amoral” or “authentic” (as Verhoeven says in the press notes) for any American actress to touch, as if all A-listers were waiting for the next Jane Austen adaptation to come around. What an assertion like this conveniently ignores is the equally plausible possibility that the film was passed over for more garden-variety shortcomings—like having a confused or undercooked plot.

Elle, which has been described as a “rape revenge comedy,” seems like it was engineered to generate controversy, at Cannes, at the New York Film Festival, and in the hundreds of think pieces that will inevitably bloom, like mold, after the film is more widely released. This kind of hype tends to overshadow what actually appears onscreen. Huppert has a powerful, magnetic presence, but Verhoeven tends to keep her at arm’s length. The film certainly admires her, and gives considerable attention to the moments when she’s at her most audacious—coolly picking out a hatchet at a sporting goods store, masturbating while spying on her neighbor from a window, criticizing a rape-by-tentacle scene in her company’s video game for being “too timid.” But there’s something aloof in the way we view her, however intently we study her. It is as if we are watching her the way she views her neighbor: through a pair of binoculars.

This is not to suggest that we are meant to get off on looking at Michèle. Verhoeven has insisted that the film is not an erotic thriller after the fashion of, say, his own Basic Instinct (1992). Certainly there are elements of the thriller in Elle: after she is brutally raped by a masked man in the film’s first scene, she begins to search for him, interrogating the many men who despise or threaten her in some way. When she finally identifies her rapist, who, in the meantime, has continued to stalk and attack her, the generic tables are apparently turned, and to some extent, Michèle is able to regain the control that was momentarily taken from her.

What makes this thriller unerotic? Verhoeven has said, “I don’t think the story is erotic; it’s about rape,” as though the two terms were mutually exclusive (which the notion of a rape fantasy dispels). To the extent that eroticism is about arousing acceptable forms of sexual desire, then, Elle tries to separate its motivations: using sex because one needs it, i.e. to satisfy a compulsion or dominate another through rape (unerotic), or enjoying it as an end in itself (erotic). With a rapist who says, “It was necessary,” when pressed for an explanation for why he did it, Elle appears to fall in the former category. Yet this vague response also characterizes Sharon Stone’s psychopathic seductress in Basic Instinct, Catherine Tramell, who, we should remember, is an ice-pick murderer, even though she is better remembered for her unique sitting posture. The lesson of the comparison is this: while it is distinctly unsexy for men possessed of an uncontrollable compulsion to rape and terrify women, the dangerous qualities of femmes fatales seem only to amplify their allure. I struggle to understand how anyone could praise this double standard for being “daring,” as many critics have done with Elle, when this kind of sexism is as old as dirt.

Elle is most interesting when it moves away from both its erotic and its thrilling components. It is as if Verhoeven originally shot two films that were later crammed together in editing: the jarring and perhaps unerotic thriller, and a family dramedy that plays out between Michèle and all those who depend on her. The latter, a snarky and sharply observed set of deeply entrenched familial tensions, is the real surprise; I think no one expected Verhoeven’s return to filmmaking to contain an extended dinner party scene plucked from Maurice Pialat or his descendant Arnaud Desplechin, or even August: Osage County. Michèle, playing hostess, juggles her mother’s announcement of her engagement to a gigolo; the amateur shade of the young yoga instructor dating her ex-husband (Michèle makes sure to plant a toothpick in her food); her son’s petulant girlfriend; the mostly unwanted entreaties of her best friend’s husband; and her handsome neighbor with whom she plays footsie under the table as his unsuspecting wife says grace above it.

Although Huppert’s dramatic versatility has been acclaimed for decades, her comedic chops are still underrated. In the above scene, Huppert is positively Muppet-like, racing from one end of the room to the other, her voice shrill, and a manic zeal in her eye. Her performance, especially when she’s swilling a glass of red wine while recounting a major childhood trauma—bearing witness to her father’s murder of 26 people—as if it were nothing more than some chatty complaints about her coworkers, recalls the eccentric postal clerk she played, with exuberant brilliance, in Claude Chabrol’s La cérémonie (1995). She’s unhinged, delighted, and does not give a fuck. A line she utters at another moment, in the thriller part of Elle, resonates especially well here: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.” While her son’s baby mama tries to shift attention away from an awkward moment by offering everyone blueberry cake, it’s apparent that Michèle delights in seeing her guests squirm.

This side of the film is more appealing, and simply better, than the moralistic amoralism of its unerotic rape revenge plot. It is where Elle’s most unexpected moments occur, as when, after sweeping up her torn underwear with the glassware broken during her attack, Michèle calls in a sushi order and pauses to ask, “What is a holiday roll?” Or when, in what might have been a gentle dig at RoboCop, her ex-husband proposes a video game concept based on the adventures of a robot dog. Or when she rescues a bird that has flown into her shut window, keeps it in a box for a while, then throws it unceremoniously into the trash. In such scenes, we get a sense of the messiness of Michèle’s life, despite her efforts to force order upon it.

How do we reconcile the two vastly different films that make up Elle? On some level, one could say this is consistent with the experience of living with trauma, namely the interruptions of daily life by memories and sensations associated with the arresting event. Verhoeven’s admirable attentiveness to the more mundane aspects of Michèle’s life doesn’t quite cohere with its violent thriller plot. There is the additional issue, one that’s either smaller or larger depending on your attitude toward such matters, of the rape scenes themselves, which suggest the possibility that Michèle enjoys some part of her violation. This is a complex and murky issue, and short of wading into what constitutes “legitimate” rape à la Todd Akin, I’ll note the problem of the unresolved tonal difference between the bouncier scenes of Michèle’s quotidian life and the film’s blunt sexual violence.

This discordance may be the point, but it feels too easy, even cheap. Sure, rape is often treated as an illicit fantasy (of surrender, of total seduction, of power) and there have been many great dramatizations of the dirigible crash of such fantasies into the ground of reality, from Rashomon to Fish Tank. But the crimes depicted here, of a masked assailant, French doors forced open, and creepy text messages, come off as cartoonish as the hentai-like videogame Michèle is designing. Again, the absence of a satisfactory explanation potentially mirrors what is maddening for victims of any atrocity. For survivors, not knowing why something terrible occurred can be just as painful as the physical and psychological wounds they suffer.

Yet this doesn’t seem to be the path Verhoeven has taken. It’s hard to decide whether the attack is an incredibly meaningful event, or only an incidental one—the film suggests both. The ambiguity that pervades Elle, from the rapist’s motivations to Michèle’s inscrutable demeanor, undoes the certainty of any single conclusion, but this is less interesting than it sounds. This indiscernibility is more like the closing gag in Inception: are we in a dream or not? While some will argue this as a virtue, such a view sets up a false opposition between a heroic foray into taboo subjects and cowardly, unambiguous, and ultimately boring morality plays. Surely these qualities are not wedded to each other (it is all too possible to be ambiguous and boring, as so many art films demonstrate), and further what this dichotomy takes for granted is the very real possibility that ambiguity is a sign of underdevelopment. Such is the case with Elle; there’s a recklessness to the film that has nothing to do with the events that happen in it.

Well before the first assault, Michèle is already a survivor. She’s long been hardened by the violence and aftermath of her father’s crimes, and her weariness following these attacks is profoundly sad, as if this kind of thing has happened to her many times before. As she bathes, she brushes away the foam tinged pink with her blood without so much as pausing to reflect on the horror of what’s happened. She buys pepper spray, changes the locks, and visits a doctor, all with a brisk efficiency. Michèle is a survivor of the violence of men, both directly and directly inflicted throughout her life. She has learned, out of necessity, how to seize control. As the title suggests, the story of Michèle is that of any and all women, all of whom must contend with a world organized for the power and pleasure of men.

The cost of maintaining control is isolation. Just as Verhoeven watches Michèle at a remove, she is distant from those she cares about most. She keeps them away through lies and dismissals, rebukes and shame. She lives alone. At one point she explains: since she was ten years old, she has pondered her “empty stare” in a photograph taken shortly after her father’s homicidal rampage. In the news stories and television specials that followed for decades later, the world interpreted that look to be that of psychotic child colluding with a monster. I imagine it as the moment in which Michèle lost her father, along with everyone else. Seen from this perspective, Elle takes another unexpected, and unexpectedly conventional turn: ice queen Michèle warms to the love of others. After she admits to her close friend Anne that she’s been having an affair with her husband, Anne leaves, then returns, having miraculously forgiven Michèle. Like the fierce loyalty between Nomi and her roommate Molly in Showgirls, Michèle and Anne find their way to an enduring friendship. The film’s most indelible moment is not the jarring violence with which it opens, but the surprisingly touching image of female solidarity that closes it.