There’s a game I like to play with myself when consuming certain types of media. And it’s a game that, if not for the perverted media culture that surrounds me, would seem positively sociopathic, but it’s a game I think Paul Verhoeven might also play with himself, and maybe some of you play it too.
I call this game “Fighting or Fucking?,” and it begins when I hear – but can’t see – a woman in media loudly groaning or moaning. From there, it’s a guessing game; when the woman is revealed, will she be in a state of pain or pleasure? As I said, the premise is clearly sociopathic, but in my defense, I see it as more of a symptom of a media culture that – for way longer then I’ve been alive – has married sexual violence with sexual arousal, especially for women. Men are sexual agents while women have sex (ahem) thrust upon them. It’s a contributing factor to rape culture for sure, which is why I feel a little ashamed to admit to have made a game of it.
Anyway, the very beginning of Elle triggered a round of this game for me and then ended it with a horrific twist. The answer was both.
Elle opens with the rape of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) by a masked intruder into her home. He finishes with a loud groan, pulls up his pants, and runs away. It’s very matter-of-fact. No background music, no dramatic cuts; just a static camera placed in the next room watching it happen. A few seconds later, Michèle sits up, and then we cut to her sweeping broken glasses from the struggle into the garbage, she throws out the dress she was wearing, and she runs herself a bubble bath. All completely wordless. If you had missed that opening minute, the only sign that Michèle had been attacked would be the red-stained bubbles over her vaginal region in the bathtub, which she regards only to swish away. And then she goes to work.
Elle is as hard to pin down as its main character, and in many ways the movie and the character are one in the same. Verhoevan might be the director, but this is 100% Isabelle Huppert’s movie. Michèle is in practically every shot in this movie, it starts and ends on her trauma (or lack thereof), and she perfectly embodies the movies’ ideas regarding the synthesis of sex and violence: Through her job as the boss of a video-game studio, telling her employees to make the virtual rape of a character by a tentacled goblin creature sound more orgasmic; her affair with the husband of her best-friend, her flirting with her husband, her constant emasculating of her adult son and criticism of his abusive pregnant girlfriend, and her antagonistic relationship with her gigolo and plastic-surgery obsessed mother.
Elle runs right up to the line of asking “did she deserve it?” and dares us to cross. Michèle is a bitch in and out of work, she’s divorced, possessive of the attention of the men in her life, a cheater, flirtatious, dresses provocatively, may be guilty of an even worse crime, and doesn’t even seem to mind having been raped in the first place. In what may be the most daring cinematic move this decade, Elle shows us a victim of a crime who is thoroughly unlikable, and hope that its audience is human enough to still sympathize with her, even laugh with her.
The entirety of the movie is carried by Huppert’s incomparable acting. Through the movie she’s able to synthesize Michèle’s many disparate parts into a complete character, balancing fear, tenacity, loneliness, resentment, kink, hostility, and so many other emotions and traits. It’s weird, the closest comparison I can draw for Michèle is Lucille Bluth, except Michèle comes across as much more sympathetic, even at her worst moments.
The nature of Elle as a movie is just as disparate. Parts are revenge fantasy, sex comedy, drawing room drama, comedy of manners, suspense; often two or more at once. Michèle learns the identity of her rapist 2/3rds the way into the movie, which gives every scene with the two of them together immense tension, even if the scene is ostensibly doing something else entirely.
And that relationship, which is built on through the entire movie is both the strangest, yet maybe most believable thing that makes the heart of Elle. It’s made clear in the first scene that Michèle refuses to play the victim. When she eventually does decide to tell other people what happened, she asks why they’re all overreacting. Once she finds out who the rapist is, there’s no immediate moment of vengeance, and instead the two seem to become a little closer and more understanding of each-other. Michèle’s strange take on the situation is that if she doesn’t let the situation get to her, then it can’t; what’s done is done, and the cops are useless anyway.
Her attitude, and the eventual dialogue she opens up with her rapist, reveals Elle’s ultimate message, if we dare to say it has one at all: Rape is about power, not sex. Despite the constant weaving of sex and violence throughout the movie, the movie draws a bold line separating the violence of rape with the sexual nature of that violence. Ultimately, Michèle is sympathetic because she refuses to let her rapist win that control over her. She’s the boss, she’s the sexual agent in her own life, she will continue acting like she always has. The film is smart enough, thankfully, to not let the rapist off the hook; but also too smart to let the tragedy define Michèle’s life. After all, the movie is called Elle, not Elle Got Raped.
P.S. – Hopefully no movie is ever called ______ Got Raped, it was just…you get it. The Rape of _______ is also a bad title, unless you’re making a documentary about Nanking circa 1937.