Agent provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Showgirls – to name just a few of his films to have pissed people off) was forced out of Hollywood to make this film in France. Why? Because it was, inevitably, a risky project that required a fearless leading lady, and Hollywood so rarely produces such women.
Verhoeven initially flirted with the idea of casting Nicole Kidman as the central rape victim with a dark past of her own, and the prospect is intriguing – Kidman did choose extremely daring material once upon a time (To Die For, Dogville, Birth) but has increasingly opted for safe fare like Paddington and Lion, so a return to danger could easily have electrified the screen. Alas, it was not to be. Other actresses to be touted include Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. All wonderful, but there was really only ever one woman with the guts to take this on, and her employment precipitated the entire production’s move to France.
Isabelle Huppert. Probably the finest actress in the world right now, an utterly fearless performer with some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most demanding roles under her belt (The Piano Teacher, Amour, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come etc. etc.). Waspish and cynical and unloving at times, amusing and generous and warm at others, there is little space on the human spectrum that she is unable to manoeuvre into with the quickest of glances or facial tics. This works a treat with Elle, a film that careens wildly from horror to comedy to miniaturist character study in a moment’s notice. It leans heavily on Huppert’s supreme ability as the centrifugal force preventing it from taking off into Showgirls-like lunacy.
The film begins with a cat calmly observing the rape of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), who once her attacker has gone sweeps up the broken window glass on the floor, has a bath and carries on with life as normal. Why doesn’t she call the police? There is a reason, and it has to do with a controversy from her childhood – a shady, violent, appalling secret that helps to explain much of her bizarre future behaviour, if perhaps in too trite a pop-psychological way.
We discover that she is the head of a PS4 games company which specialises in allowing players to live out misogynistic fantasies, including a graphic orc rape scene that Michèle declares is not realistic enough – needs more orgasmic convulsions from the woman, she says. Already we are in troubling and murky moral waters: if Michèle is complicit in a culture that glorifies aggressive sexual behaviour then can it be said that she is somewhat responsible for her attack? Does she really believe that women, deep down, can enjoy the experience of being raped? And, whisper it… perhaps did she enjoy being raped?
As the film pans out we are given a new reason to be disturbed in every scene. Without giving the game away, it might be best to warn readers that there are many more rape scenes to come, some of them real and some of them not, on the way to a, well, quasi-revenge. We become more and more convinced that Michèle is a sadomasochistic deviant who seeks out abuse in all aspects of life, not just in the bedroom and her private fantasies, but also in relationships with friends and family.
Peter Bradshaw questioned in The Guardian if this film was ‘post-feminist? Pre-feminist? Non-feminist?’ I think the answer is in the title: it’s called Elle and not Elles. It’s a look at how one woman reacts to a heinous crime and should not be extrapolated to represent all women’s reactions to misogyny and rape culture. Try and make a reading of this film in relation to feminist studies and you will inevitably fall into Verhoeven’s vicious trap – what kind of modern, enlightened woman actually seeks out sexual abuse? You’re guaranteed to be pissed off. That title is a way out, claiming this film as a contained character study rather than any kind of political commentary.
Still, Verhoeven’s deliberate shock tactics are what ultimately hold the film back from greatness. Cold, ever so cold, his gallows humour is not enough to cover up an unnerving misanthropy. All of his characters are stupid and/or violent with little to redeem them; it can be seen as an arty version of Game of Thrones in that respect. I’ve always been wary of aggressive cynicism, which can make for compelling viewing in the moment but all too easily cops out from examining the real complexities of human beings, so I don’t thrill to Elle in the way so many critics have done.
Of course Elle is subtler than Game of Thrones, and it is saved by some wonderful social satire: a central dinner party scene has a delicious disdain for bourgeois convention and contains several laugh-out-loud moments. We need Verhoevian-style provocations in filmmaking because it keeps the medium alive – art should be challenging, I believe that completely, and Elle continues in the richly sarcastic and shocking vein of Buñuel, Cronenberg, Lynch, and many others. But art should also be moving, transformative, and alert to the balance of good and evil in this world (I think of a masterpiece like The Night of the Hunter).
Elle is too flat and delighted to wallow in the squalid horrors of being alive to be truly challenging: it works nicely as horror-comedy, but not well enough as human drama.