Content Warning: Rape and sexual violence.
A film that is centered solely around rape will never be a film for everyone. Though as a rape survivor, I felt that every moment of Elle was made with me in mind. Paul Verhoeven’s study of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a violent rape in her home is one of the most honest and moving portrayals of the strength of survivors and the complex nature of that survival that I’ve seen put to film.
In its stark opening sequence, we hear the assault on the titular Michele, but only witness the seconds after, as the masked assailant cleans himself up and pulls up his trousers as he leaves. Verhoeven is always avoiding the sensational and exploitative whilst focusing on the bleak mundanity of how life goes on even after such a horrific life changing act. In the subsequent moments, Michele cleans up the broken crockery and glass with a broom, the focus on this action that seems as if it should be irrelevant, but is actually an acute way of Michelle gaining control of her own home again after this invasion. This scene profoundly moved me as it held such recognition of the small ways in which it’s possible to regain normality after such an abnormal act.
Paul Verhoeven is not the first name most would think of if you were asked to name a director who could make a nuanced, complex, and kind portrayal of a rape survivor. As a huge fan of his earlier films, I’m the first to admit they often come across as brash things drenched in the male gaze, though that’s just on the most superficial of levels. Verhoeven is actually a master of subversion, his hyper-masculine movies a commentary on the toxic masculinity that they often end up courting. His movies tend to be far before their time so they lose some of their satirical impact until years later when they’re picked apart and studied. So if we chose to look at Verhoeven as a satirist who made his name in action and has decided to take that subversion to bleak comedy and drama, Elle begins to make a little more sense.
One of the most astoundingly subversive things that the film does is paint Michele as a normal, flawed woman, one who has numerous relationships with many different kinds of men, one who is strong willed and abrasive, but never deserving of what happened to her. This is rare in movies that deal with assault. You usually have two types of female protagonists in those films: the innocent victim or the cautionary tale. The innocent victim is doe eyed and slight; she is nothing but a cypher for the violence of a man and usually the progression of a male character’s story. The cautionary tale will be a promiscuous woman or a drunk woman or any kind of woman whose trauma is used as nothing more than a warning to other women to not follow her behaviour. Elle is neither of these archetypes. Elle is just a woman.
Verhoeven recognizes the innate violence of patriarchal society in all of its subtleties. The world that Michele resides in is a mirror of the one we all do, but one where Verhoeven chooses to shine a light on the everyday violence of men. Michele is a high powered business woman who works in the male dominated world of video games. Her company is filled with young men who constantly question her or fetishize her. Their unprofessional behaviour is instantly recognisable to any of us who have held management jobs above angry young men.
The film never shies away from society’s normalisation of sexual violence. After we witness the assault, we are shown a violent sexualised assault and murder in video game form, then Michele is seen admonishing a room full of her young male employees, she says the attack isn’t sexual enough. Even after her own assault, she continues to create art that perpetuates the proliferation of sexual violence. Later, the same video is sent to our protagonist, but doctored to include her face, leading the audience to believe her assailant may be someone within her company. There is something so profound in this recognition of the paranoia that surrounds you after an assault, the fact that the smallest acts of disrespect or “pranks” that may have once seemed innocuous suddenly become violent.
Michele’s trajectory throughout the film is one that I have found to be almost universal in the women who I have shared survivorship with, and that is one of just getting on with life. There is something radical in this open acknowledgment of how resoundingly fucked up it is, that women have these traumatic, life altering things done to them, but often don’t have the space to alter their lives because of them. How many of us have had to live through something so unspeakably awful and then go to our workplace, see our family, and act as if we are the same? Often having to look at those who have attacked us in the face as we act out this supposedly unchanged version of ourselves?
Though Verhoeven is obviously at the helm of this story, at the heart of it is an incredible performance by Isabelle Huppert. Astoundingly authentic and wonderfully raw, this movie is nothing without her, which is exactly as a movie about the rape of a woman should be, though often in narratives that deal with this topic women are secondary to the plot of the men around them. Take Irreversible by enfant terrible Gasper Noe. It’s a movie that I find important in its violent and honest depiction of the act of rape, one so visceral that many audiences couldn’t sit through it. Though aside from those very real twelve minutes, the film revolves only around the victim’s husband and how it affects him. In fact, there’s a very real argument that you could exclude the rape scene from the film and it would make little difference to the narrative structure. Elle never falls into this trap. It is only ever a film about Michele and her experiences.
Elle is a film that I feel any viewer should approach with trepidation. There are only a few moments of explicit violence, though for anyone who has been assaulted they will be hard to watch. I would never suggest that this movie is for every survivor, but I feel like it is one which deals with many of the aspects of being a survivor that society and cinema overlook. The abject distance and loneliness, the strange acceptance of these abhorrent acts that were out of your control, the longing for intimacy that you can feel judged or guilty for. There is so much in this film that I related to and that moved me, and there were moments of such subtle profundity that they took my breath away.
There is so much to pick apart from this beautiful, nuanced, and well-crafted film. I feel that it was done a disservice by being called a “rape revenge” movie, which colours it with exploitation and a Tarantino-esque lack of subtlety. Whereas its true form is far nearer to an art house study on one woman’s coping mechanisms when faced with trauma. It was honestly a complete revelation to see an older woman depicted with such respect and boundless strength, without ever falling into the tired tropes that we know so well. Elle is as much a journey for the audience as it is for our protagonist. Though it is certainly not for everyone, it was a film that I desperately needed.