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Film Review – Elle

3 min read

In the opening moments of Paul Verhoeven’s latest film we hear a loud crash, followed by a piercing slap, harsh, masculine grunting and the sound of a woman shouting in terror and pain. As we listen the camera lingers on the aloof, apathetic face of the woman’s cat, the creature seemingly indifferent to the audibly violent sexual assault occurring off-screen. It’s only once the feline has grown bored and slunk away that the camera pans around to show us a hulking male figure in a ski mask climbing off his victim, pulling up his pants and strolling out of the room. The woman lies stunned for a while but eventually rises, cleans up the broken crockery and has a bath. When her adult son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) arrives for a prearranged dinner not long afterwards Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) greets him as though nothing has happened.

Described in the film’s synopsis as “indestructible”, Michèle certainly appears remarkably unruffled in the wake of the attack. She immediately returns to work at the successful video game company she runs with the help of her friend and long-time professional partner Anna (Anne Consigny). The fact that the games her company produces contain graphic sexual violence doesn’t appear to bother Michèle in the slightest. When her employees show her some new footage of a grotesque troll-like creature savagely assaulting a beautiful young woman Michèle rebukes them because the victim’s “orgasmic convulsions are way too timid”. A few days later she casually informs her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) and Anna that she was raped while they are out for dinner at an upscale restaurant.

Elle still

It’s an important moment because it makes clear to the viewer that Michèle’s composure following the assault isn’t motivated by a desire to bury her trauma or conceal what happened to her. She is perfectly willing to identify herself as a rape victim, she simply insists on coping with it in her own way and on her own terms. Michèle won’t go to the police because as we later find out she has very good reasons to not trust them or believe they will help her, but she does arm herself with pepper spray and a hatchet and has a male employee teach her how to shoot a gun. She also refuses to allow her assault or the threatening messages she begins receiving from her rapist to interfere with her sex life. The character continues her affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) and participates in an ongoing, erotically charged flirtation with her married neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).

Everything Verhoeven shows us about Michèle’s life affirms her strength and her social, sexual and economic independence as a woman. We see her deftly putting a male subordinate who attempts to undermine her at work in his place, firmly reminding him that “the boss here is me”. It’s also apparent that Michèle’s male and female family members are financially dependent on her, and that she neither relishes nor feels any need to apologize for that fact. Like many trauma victims Michèle is plagued by flashbacks to the event, but even these quickly evolve from simply replaying the brutal assault to violent fantasies in which Michèle fends off her attacker and triumphantly beats him to death.

All of this proves to be vital to understanding Michèle’s actions in Elle’s third act after she learns the identity of her rapist. Without the grounding the film’s first two acts provide it would be easy to dismiss the character’s behaviour as irrational or weak, but since Michèle’s resilience and fierce intelligence are well established by this point more complex explanations must be sought. Some may find Michèle’s response to her rape troubling or problematic, and Elle certainly isn’t empowering in the way that more conventional rape-revenge narratives are. What the film does offer is a resounding rejection of the notion that there is a correct way for victims to respond to and cope with sexual assault.