Spoilers ahead under the cut; also content warning for rape mentions as that’s what the film is about.
I was supposed to put up a film recs post a couple of days ago on my birthday, but writer’s block has been a real pain to deal with recently. So I’ll just talk about a film I saw last night, which was Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016). This film is a masterful exercise in a psychological thriller, but it’s also incredibly difficult to watch and much more difficult to talk about. It’s not so much a convoluted story as it is about interweaving relationships and problematic dynamic, which creates a richly layered story. Nevertheless, I found it hard to “enjoy” the film overall, which obviously was the point.
I went into the film with pretty high expectations, but they were also tempered by the fact that everyone I’d spoken to was reticent to completely give themselves over the film, and upon watching it, I can clearly see why. As a brief summary, Elle is about Michèle, a CEO of a video game company, after a man has raped her in her home and she plots revenge on him.
It’s not just a story that portrays a woman’s rape and its aftermath in a typically clinical fashion. Instead, the film purposely makes audiences remember and reconstruct the scene of the crime multiple times over, and it is jarring, upsetting, and very complicated. Trauma is not a static concept in this film as it is in many stories that all seem to compartmentalise it well enough that it only rears its ugly head at opportune moments. But what Elle achieves is a sense of terror and a lack of safety within one’s own home in a very concrete and believable way. There’s a scene in the film where Michèle hears her cat’s aggressive meowing and remembers the rape. As an audience member I remember hoping that we wouldn’t have to witness it in graphic detail but that wish was obviously not granted. To have it be connected to something as innocuous and perhaps even comforting as a pet is very much part of its psychological game, and it’s pretty masterful. That said, I don’t agree with how visibly violent the film is just to get that point across as well. For narrative effect, I see why that was the chosen technique. But violence against women is a well-worn trope in the movie industry anyway and it’s tiresome and insulting to watch women be forced into becoming this openly defiant, ‘strong’ presence. Thankfully for this film, its protagonist seems to be in relative control of her life, even before such a traumatic experience.
Much of Michèle’s expressions and even some of her actions could be considered ‘unreadable’ and ‘unknowable’ in the film. The narrative wants the audience to empathise with her, even when she does something questionable or something that doesn’t really ‘make sense’ to the typical ‘strong woman’ narrative. It’s partially why I found this film so compelling – Michèle is a strong woman, but she can be terrible. We’re made fully aware that she is absolutely comfortable with conducting affairs with married men, and is not always the best mother to her admittedly foolish son. Her role in a massacre carried out by her father is never fully expanded on, although she was a minor and victimised by his rampage as far as I’m concerned. But I’m wondering if there are people who think she was lies about that period of her life as an adult. One of those annoying ‘devil’s advocate’ moments that creep into the mind, as her other methods of gaining some kind of control in her life can be read as disagreeable to some extent. Michèle is a complex character and actually owns that moniker beautifully. Isabelle Huppert plays her with such deftness. The slightest of a twitch at the corners of her mouth, the change in emotional pitch readable from just her eyes alone, the kind of playfulness in her overall demeanour that offsets the horrible circumstances afflicting her character… it’s all there and more.
The last thing I saw Huppert in was Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which was not my kind of movie in the slightest although it features a similarly complicated woman protagonist. But for me, the difference between Elle and that film is the former’s ending. Whereas The Piano Teacher is simply bleak and uncomfortable throughout, Elle ends in a surprisingly loving gesture towards its protagonist. Michèle isn’t left to suffer anymore and gets to rebuild her family, but she is also not the subject of any tirade, be it from the media or from her old neighbour or from her friends and family. She is allowed to maintain a strong connection with her friend, despite having done something duplicitous to her, and they walk away together in relative peace. As my friend told me last night as we exited the cinema and tried to talk about this film, it’s just refreshing that the audience doesn’t have to take Michèle’s baggage home. There is a kind of reassurance that yes, everything will be okay eventually, especially because we already know how resilient the character is. It’s a true hero’s ending, which was very much unexpected.
In a way, Elle touches on multiple relationships with such depth – it’s something I’ve rarely ever seen onscreen and probably my favourite thing about it. Nothing felt forced except for the obvious violations; everything felt very authentic. That’s again to do with the nuanced portrayals of not just Michèle but the people around her. Even caricatures don’t last very long in this film, because reality slaps the audience in the face and everyone is shown to have a sinister side.
All that being said, this is the kind of harrowing cinema I don’t think I want to rewatch for a long time. I don’t think I’ll never see it again, but it runs for quite a while (130 minutes) and considering the subject matter, it would be too trying.