It is understandable that Elle is a controversial film. Its central act, a woman being violently raped in her home, is approached in a distinctly and deliberately unusual way which is sure to offend at least a few members os every possible school of thought on the subject of rape, although some have called it, and the novel it was based on (Oh, by Phillippe Dijian) empowering to women.
The main character, Michelle (Isabelle Huppert), would normally be described as the victim of the rape; but Michelle is hard to categorise as a victim. Huppert describes her character as a woman who refuses to be a victim. Neither does Michelle take on the other typical role of a rape victim: that of a woman seeking justice or vengeance. “A revenge movie,” director Paul Verhoeven joked, “would be the American way of doing it.” The rape was horrifying, but Michelle refuses to let it impact her life – and not in the manner of a third type of standard movie rape victim, the woman who foolishly tries to repress her trauma, but successfully. Paul Verhoeven, calls Elle “my protest against genre.”
The film begins with a blank screen and the sounds of what seems to be aggressive sex. After a second or two, it becomes clear that the female voice is crying out not in passion, but in pain or protest. The audio portion is brief, and the first visible scene is the aftermath of a rape, with a woman lying on the floor, her clothing is disarray, broken glass and shards of crockery all around her, while a man in a ski mask quickly leaves through an open window. Almost immediately, the film thwarts expectations: the woman sits up and, after a moment’s reflection, begins calmly sweeping up the shattered dishes. She also throws her clothing in the trash and bathes, but these natural responses to a rape are done calmly. There is no call to the police to report the assault.
We follow Michelle to work the next day; she is founder and CEO of a video game company. She is not only successful, but confident and assertive, managing the sometimes resentful young game developers she oversees with ease. As Michelle continues to go about her daily business, we get a clearer idea of her character. She is firm and no-nonsense, even with her son, whom she loves but finds exasperating. She is by no means cold, as shown by her concern for friends, and for an injured bird she tries to revive; but she is cynical and cautious. The reasons for her attitude emerge gradually, leading us to slowly piece together information about a significant and traumatic event in her childhood.
As Michelle deals with mundane issues, visiting her elderly but reprobate mother, helping her under-employed son find an apartment for himself and his pregnant girlfriend, her dry sense of humour continues to add comedy to scenes of her daily routine. So much casual humour in a film about rape seems inappropriate, even subversive. The film further pushes boundaries by having Michelle retain her normal interest in sex after the assault. The reality of the rape itself is not covered up, however: Michelle mentally revisits the scene, and we see it replayed, this time with Michelle, in her own fantasy, breaking free and beating her assailant unconscious with a blunt object. She never verbally identifies her feelings; the closest we come to such a statement is a scene in which Michelle walks into work, passing a group of test subjects playing a violent video game. The test supervisor, taking notes, asks them, “What do you feel? Fear or anger?” The groups replies in unison, “Anger.”
The final portion of the film may be the most difficult. Without revealing the details, or the highly problematic identity of the attacker, Michelle manages to track down and finally identify her rapist, and once again takes an approach which defies genre, one which is hard to pin down but could be interpreted as either revenge or self-victimisation. It seems to me that Michelle is risking a great deal to take control of her own assault; but her approach is unconventional in the extreme, revolting against any kind of common understanding of rape, violence, or control. She may be said to have turned the situation into a game, like one of her own violent video games, so that she can enter it and win on her own terms.
The film winds down as Michelle ties up loose ends regarding her mother, her son, and even the father who has been in prison all these years. She confronts and brings closure to the terrible events she went through as a girl. Finally, she also brings the matter of her assault to an end. In a deliberately ambiguous scene, Michelle deals with the threats from her rapist, but it is unclear whether the conclusion is accidental, or planned by her in advance.
Isabelle Huppert, commenting on Elle, has said that the simple rape revenge fantasy, common in film, is a caricature rather than a realistic portrayal. Elle’s director has claimed he wanted to avoid seeing the event through “an artificial framework.” Yet the realism of the rape victim’s story in Elle is also in question. It may be best, as Huppert suggested, if taken as a fable rather than a realistic account. As for the comedic element, a risky choice in a film about rape, it is certainly no more callous or inappropriate than comedy in a story about cancer, or AIDS, neither of which are unusual or controversial – provided that the humour comes from the patient. In Elle, the humour is all Michelle’s own. She doesn’t lose her sarcasm or sense of irony when she is raped, any more than she loses her courage or sense of self, and that, at least, is a positive message.