Joyce Glasser reviews Elle (March 10, 2017)
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle has a neo-noir, tense atmosphere, well-crafted scenes and boasts an assertive, financially independent female lead that has people talking. It is only when you try to figure out what the film is saying that the problems arise. Almost unanimously, male critics are heralding the film for its protagonist, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Hubbert) who refuses to be victimised by a rape or by any of the severely flawed men in her life. That this refusal requires Michèle to be more ignoble than the men – and women – around her is irrelevant. For in Elle Paul Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct, wants to remind us that, at 78, he can still épater la bourgeoisie by blurring the boundaries of sexual desire, deviance and anything remaining taboo. While Emma Stone triumphed over Huppert for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, in Michèle’s world, Stone’s Mia wouldn’t stand a chance.
Based on the novel Oh…. the prolific writer Philippe Djian (Unforgiveable, Betty Blue) the film begins with a rape that makes you jump in your seat. The victim, the well-groomed and dressed fifty-something Michèle Leblanc, composes herself, sweeps up the broken glass and has the locks changed as her sole companion in the large villa, a passive cat, looks on.
While Michèle is busy running her X-rated digital animation company with her partner Anna (Anne Consigny), she is haunted by text messages from her assailant that suggest he is watching her. She becomes suspicious of one of her employees when she sees her face on a particularly nasty bit of animation. While it may make male critics feel better that Michèle rises above her assault, it is perverse to argue that she refuses to become a victim. A woman is always the victim of rape. Traumatised, Michèle replays the rape in her mind and it takes us a second to realise that what we are seeing is instant replay, not a new rape scene.
But Michèle is raped again. When, this time, she unmasks the intruder in the struggle, she makes no further efforts to tighten security. Instead she provokes her assailant to the extent that when he ultimately pays the price – though crucially not at Michèle’s hand – he sincerely asks, ‘why?’ To him, (and he has a point), it is a game that Michèle, bored with the usual sado-masochistic sexuality, consented to play. There has been so much publicity surrounding this film, that most readers will know the identity of the handsome, well-off rapist (Laurent Lafitte), twenty years her junior. He is married, ironically, to a beautiful, devout Catholic woman (Virginie Efira, Up for Love) who seems to hold the final trump card. Behind every man there’s a woman.
But Michèle’s understandably fraught state of mind from the rape does not explain the rest of her conduct. This, Verhoeven and screenplay writer David Birke seem to suggest, is due to child abuse, and here’s where the psychological muddle sets in.
Why Michèle does not go to the police is bound up with who she is: the daughter of a serial killer from Nantes whose name is linked with a photo of Michèle aged about 10. In the film (although not in the novel) it is suggested that she was an accomplice to his crimes. Her father will soon be up for parole and Michèle, who is still spurned by those who remember and recognise her, wants to avoid the cops and publicity.
When Michèle is not busy at work, she is busy hurting people who somehow keep returning for more. Her 80-year old mother Irène (Judith Marge) is engaged to a spiteful, self-serving gigolo. Given that Irène failed to protect her daughter and is clearly deluded, Michèle is justified in insulting Irène in private. But when Irène attends a party at Michèle’s house and is insulted in public, it is just nasty. Why, if you refuse to act like a victim, invite people to a party and make everyone uncomfortable by insulting them?
Nor does Michèle conceal her opinion of Josie (Alice Isaaz), the girlfriend of her good-hearted, but dim-witted son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who has trouble keeping even his low-paid service job. Michèle offers to finance an apartment for the couple after learning that the demanding Josie is pregnant. When Josie gives birth to a black child, Michèle berates Vincent who insists that the child is his. This adds resonance to Michèle’s utterance, ‘Sometimes I look at that big lout that came out of my stomach and I don’t recognise him.’ Could it be that Vincent wants a family life where he can show a young boy the love he never felt?
Michèle intentionally damages cash-strapped Richard’s car when she meets him for dinner and we are evidently meant to laugh at her childish abandon. No one is laughing, however, when she learns that Richard is seeing a young, single student (Vimala Pons), and sets about sabotaging that relationship. There is clearly more than a double standard in Michèle’s own affair with Robert (Christian Berkel) Anna’s husband. Given that Anna appears to be Michèle’s only friend, as well as her business partner, this affair – which is purely sexual – seems particularly sociopathic.
The protagonist of Dijan’s novel is in her fifties. When, according to the hype, no American actress would take the role, Huppert, who is 63, jumped at the chance and Verhoeven made his first film in French. One of the world’s greatest actresses, Huppert certainly makes this role her own and carries the film. Yet she has met more challenging roles, notably, in La Cérémonie, The Piano Teacher and last year’s Things to Come, a performance so subtle, instinctual and perceptive that it is impossible to believe she is acting.
Elle might have worked as a satire of nihilism, but it is not, as it is claimed, a tale of revenge. Michèle is not out for revenge on her assailant, and, given her lonely, destructive and self-destructive life, she has not been successful in revenging the damage done to her by her father.
The intentional humour in the script and in Huppert’s often flippant reactions jars with the brutality of the rape scenes. The film is so well made, beautifully shot and compelling, that it seduces the viewer into believing we are watching something profound. But nothing in the film has any consequences. With no explanation at the end we see Josie, Vincent and Michèle as one big happy family. An office party in which Michele makes compliments her staff, and they applaud her. Richard takes the loss of his girlfriend in his stride and Irène’s death is due to natural causes. Anna, who seems to have a long term crush on Michèle, marches off arm-in-arm with her, as though Michèle has done her a favour in ending her marriage. They might be strolling through a grave yard in the final scene, but Michèle has steeled herself against fear and it seems, compassion.
You can watch the film trailer here: