Elle begins violently. Within seconds of of the opening sequence, a balaclava-clad intruder rapes the film’s protagonist, a middle-aged executive of a video game company named Michèle (Isabelle Huppert). This graphic beginning to the new film by Paul Verhoeven—of Robocop and Basic Instinct fame—tells us that the Dutch filmmaker is in altogether different territory this time around. The next few minutes confirm our suspicions: After a few stupefied moments, Michèle stands, tidies the room and returns to her work. What follows is a strangely suspenseful and humorous two-hour tour through sexuality, victimhood and survival.
Two details about the making of Elle (“she” in French) stand out: It is both Verhoeven’s first film in over a decade—the last film was 2006’s Blackbook—and his first French-language film ever. The film had its American debut at the closing weekend of the New York Film Festival in mid-October.
It’s worthwhile to immediately ask: what business do a male director (Verhoeven), a male writer (David Birke) and a male critic (myself) have in holding a discussion about a woman’s sexual assault? It goes without saying that the voices of men should clearly take a backseat in all conversations about sexual assault, but Verhoeven’s subversions to the standard narratives of rape in cinema make it a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.
Michèle is not keen to allow her story to be told by others. She doesn’t report the attack to the authorities because she isn’t willing to surrender herself to the victim narratives that would be imposed upon her by the police and the media. When she was a child, her father was convicted of a grisly series of murders. The fallout from this was an onslaught of media and public scrutiny that continues to follow her as an adult. Michèle refuses to involve the authorities because she won’t allow herself to lose narrative agency again. This is a major theme for the film, which strives to avoid other cliches of a female characters being required to overcome a trauma in order to become strong.
Michèle’s strength as a person isn’t derived from her conquering her sexual assault; it comes from the person that she already is. Huppert brings a veteran’s touch to the character of Michèle, portraying her as someone who cooly emanates a steely spirit as well as a sexual shrewdness. Michèle is the head of a company in a primarily male-dominated industry. She swiftly disposes with any challenge to her authority raised by the young men who work for her, tolerating neither dissent nor objectifying sexual banter.
Michèle is in control in another way. She commands the sexual attention of nearly half of the major characters in the film at different points, including her ex-husband, her best friend, her best friend’s husband, and her next door neighbor. Michèle’s strength comes from this sexual and professional power. And because of this, she is able to engage in a cat and mouse game of tracking down and confronting her attacker. This chase becomes the meat of the film as Michèle tries to learn her attacker’s identity and motives. This isn’t meant to suggest that women who don’t exude Michele’s brand of sexual power are somehow inferior, but rather that victims of crime come in all forms.
It’s also worth mentioning that this film blends humor and suspense into a unique form. Elle has a dark (and occasionally silly) sense of humor. In one semi-surreal scene, Michèle casually admits to her friends’ astonishment that she had been raped while a chorus of celebratory champagne corks popped around them. They uncomfortably sit while the waiters excitedly bring around the libations. In another scene, Michèle sees an unfamiliar car parked outside of her house. She girds herself with a medieval throwing axe and pepper spray, approaches the car from the rear, smashes the window and sprays the unknown person sitting in the car only to discover her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), who had come to make sure she got home safely.
Elle builds repeatedly to an apogee of suspense, where the viewer genuinely fears for Michèle’s safety, only to deflate the scenario with giggling glee. That makes the scenes in which Michèle’s attacker really does return all the more frightening, as the viewer never knows what could turn up humorous and what could turn up dangerous. This bizarre blend of humor and suspense creates a unique atmosphere that keeps the viewer on edge until the end. This along with its bucking of traditional victimhood metanarratives serves to make Elle one of the most interesting films in Verhoeven’s catalogue.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Released Nov. 11 in the US
Photo: Courtesy of SBS Productions / IMDb