What Should We Make of Elle’s Out-There Sexual Politics?

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Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Photo: SBS Productions

Here's the first sign that Paul Verhoeven isn't your average filmmaker: Not only does he have two Golden Raspberry Awards (for Showgirls), but he's also one of the few people who's ever shown up to accept their trophies in person. This idiosyncrasy is a useful tool for parsing the rest of the director's work, which ranges from serious fare (usually Dutch) like the World War II movies Soldier of Orange and Black Book to bravura schlock (usually American) like Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Across that strange filmography, you always get the sense that Verhoeven knows exactly what he's doing, even as he ventures into extreme camp or Cronenbergian body horror. This isn't a director who's ever lost his way; he just happens to be going to some very strange places.

His new film, Elle, might be the apex of this approach. Based on the French novel Oh... by Philippe Djian, and written for the screen by David Birke, Elle opens with a startling scene: Michèle Leblanc, played by the French actress Isabelle Huppert, is raped in her own home by a masked assailant. Despite the horror of that opening event, Michèle's arc is much different than one might expect; successful, acerbic, and sexually empowered, she refuses to be victimized by the attack, even as the harassment is prolonged and heightened.

What unfolds is a rare kind of erotic thriller — if the movie can possibly be called that — in which the eroticism is often un-erotic and the thrills are constantly sidelined for R-rated screwball comedy. There's a holy young neighbor who labors over her lifesize nativity scene, an elderly woman sleeping with a young stud, a cruelly treacherous love affair, gratuitous male and female nudity, and an insane, terrible-looking video game that never reveals whether it's satirical or not. Michèle gleefully sticks her stockinged foot in a man's crotch during a dinner party, makes one of her employees show her his penis, and constantly insults her fatuous mother and dimwitted son, whose baby emerges from his girlfriend a different race than he is. Oh, and her father is a nationally famous mass-murderer. And then, still — the rape.

And that's the point. Throughout Elle, Verhoeven and Huppert steer headlong into the skid, fashioning a film that seeks to dissemble rape into its manifold contradictory parts: power, sex, gender, violence, ownership, sin. What results is startlingly strange, and I suspect it will leave both art-house patrons and Academy members dumbfounded. In that way, Elle seems most to be a true Verhoeven original, determined to subvert the idea of what should happen after a woman is raped onscreen. As Michèle throws herself into a shocking relationship that stems from her assault — and Elle is one of the rare modern movies that can truly be described as shocking — Verhoeven (and Huppert, too) seem like they're trying to see just how far they can take things. 

At its core, Elle flips and unfolds conventional narratives of victimization, refusing to make it a reductive event. This kind of dynamic has been attempted by male filmmakers in the past, most notably in the femsploitation thrillers of the '70s and '80s and Quentin Tarantino's modern update, Kill Bill. But unlike those films, where our heroine is first destroyed, then seeks revenge, Elle treats the rape as matter-of-factly as it can be, fitting it into a long history of misdeeds done to Michèle by the men in her life, whether it's her father's murders, her husband's abandonment, or her son's inadequacy. After she's raped, she is not reborn as a better, stronger version of herself — Michèle remains Michèle.

Is this the right way to treat rape and sexual violence in film? Is there a right way to treat rape and sexual violence in film? These are not questions that Elle seems terribly interested in answering; the movie is so determinedly itself that it doesn't spend much time wading into ethical and moral waters, other than to splash that water in your face. When Leblanc's friends urge her to report the rape to the police, she declines, citing the debacle of her father's crimes, and the way she handles her rapist once she discover his identity is ... idiosyncratic. (It involves lasagna.)

Here, Verhoeven's influence is most prominent. Where other directors would try to make a larger statement about rape, or to tell a story with cultural or societal heft, Verhoeven has far more interest in how weird people are. It isn't the rape that's so appalling (though the rape is appalling); it's people that are appalling, and irrational, and oversexed, and goofy. You might love Elle, or you might hate it, but there's one thing that's for certain, aside from Huppert's virtuosity: There aren't many movies out there that go even half as far as this.