‘Elle’ Is A Satirical Rape Revenge Thriller That Doesn’t Have Time For Your Morals

Misogyny is a game that women can win.

The post discusses sexual assault. 

The first character we meet in Paul Verhoeven’s stylish black comedy is Marty, a cat belonging to videogame publisher Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert). Filmed in velvety close-up he watches coolly, as cats do, while a masked intruder rapes his mistress. Afterwards, she chides her pet: “You didn’t have to put out his eyes, but you could at least have scratched him!”

Marty’s Palme Cat-winning performance — and his presence on Elle’s advertising poster — tells us something crucial about Michèle, and about this film. Like her cat, she’s groomed and pampered, but independent and inscrutable. She seems passive, but Michèle has claws. And Elle is a catlike film. (I’m resisting the Donald Trump reference, but nonetheless it’s there, lurking.) It’s ruthless when it decides to pounce, and it enjoys toying with its prey.

Playing With Audience Expectations

Elle has been described as a rape revenge film, because its narrative engine is Michèle’s quiet scrutiny of her family, workmates, friends and neighbours for clues to her attacker’s identity, and our anticipation of what she will do to him once she identifies him. But this is the kind of satirical genre misdirection in which Verhoeven specialises. Our culture usually treats rape as a galvanising device for both plot and character, but every scene here undercuts the familiar emotional coding of such ideas – whether by provoking a shocking burst of laughter or of violence.

Best known in Hollywood for the fascistic sci-fi ultraviolence of RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), and the erotic psychodrama of Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), here Verhoeven parodies the muted palette and lush orchestral soundtrack of European cinema. He’s taking the piss out of the kind of cool, sophisticated psychological thriller Roman Polanski makes — and Huppert is playing on her own arthouse résumé of elegant, enigmatic, perverse characters.

SFW Basic Instinct gif.

Verhoeven may be working in a more restrained cinematic register, but his sense of irony is as pointed as ever. It peeks through in small moments, such as when Michèle tells a group of friends about her assault over dinner, just as a waiter arrives with a bottle of champagne. “You know, I went through a traumatic experience,” she later tells Robert (Christian Berkel), her best friend and business partner Anna’s (Anne Consigny) husband, whom she’s been fucking. Robert apologises for his insensitivity… while undoing his pants.

There’s more laugh-out-loud farce in Michèle’s private life. Her failed-writer ex (Charles Berling) has a much younger new girlfriend (Vimala Pons); her salty mother (Judith Magre) has a gigolo of her own (Raphaël Lenglet). And Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), Michèle’s hopeless ding-dong of a son, wants to build a life with the snappish Josie (Alice Isaaz), whose baby clearly isn’t Vincent’s. Then there’s her polite neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), whose wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is almost absurdly religious.

All the classic tropes of European arthouse cinema are here. Confrontational dinner parties. Illicit affairs. Intergenerational angst. Dark secrets from the past. But Huppert glides through this film with sardonic poise, never reacting as Michèle is ‘supposed to’ – that is, she’s neither a traumatised victim nor a wrathful avenger. And while Verhoeven teases certain connections between Michèle’s adult sexuality and her childhood exposure to violence, he doesn’t exploitatively eroticise rape, and avoids facile suggestions that she is psychologically scarred or damaged. She remains her own mistress.

Misogyny Is A Game Women Can Win

It’s no accident that Michèle runs a company that makes sexually violent video games, because Elle is a film about navigating a culture sodden in misogyny. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to the scene of Michèle’s rape as she remembers details and fantasises about alternate reactions. She’s like a video game quest character over multiple lives, striving to nail the moves and weapons she needs to level up. And there’s something just a little unrealistic — in a game-character way — in her ability to shrug off violence and get on with her life.

In a post-#Gamergate world where women in the games industry are routinely stalked and abused, it’s perversely bracing to see Michèle humiliate her young male development team for failing to nail a scene in which a monstrous tentacled orc rapes a busty maiden. (“The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid!”) She knows, as we do, that her employees take her criticism by day, and then lead torrid nocturnal lives as Twitter eggs.

Brooding designer Kurt (Lucas Prisor) is Michèle’s rape suspect number one, so she instructs geeky Kevin (Arthur Mazet) to hack into everyone’s home computers. And in a reversal of every unwelcome dick pic a man has ever sent a woman, she coolly demands one of her employees show her his penis, so she can compare it to her rapist’s.

What complicates Michèle’s search for her rapist is that pretty much every weak, mediocre man in her life could plausibly hate her. But, exhilaratingly, Michèle draws power and pleasure from men’s hatred and violence, at work and at home. She refuses to become the object on which men take out their fear and rage. And — crucially — she refuses to inflict more of the same fear and rage herself.

Conventionally, films — and comics, and games — locate the strength of ‘strong female characters’ in physical, mental and sexual aggression. We’re meant to identify these characters as feminist because they’re actively resisting patriarchal social pressures. But Michèle’s behaviour throughout the film is more like ju-jitsu: she yields to her opponents in order to use their force against them. Elle explores the provocative idea that the most subversive response to misogyny is not to fight it, but to submit to it.

In a rape culture, we understand rape as terrible because it’s a weapon intended not just to hurt, but also to ruin – we construe it to permanently degrade and diminish someone. We teach those who are raped that they somehow ruined themselves, while the perpetrators remain as culturally invisible as Michèle’s ski-masked attacker. Such a destructive yet invisible threat condemns women, particularly, to live in a state of fight-or-flight hyper-vigilance.

But by playing the same game over and over again, ironising and even desiring what is forced on her, Michèle frees herself from this prison. Rape loses its power over her as an act of patriarchal discipline. She’s still the same person. “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,” she tells Anna.

Elle is a brilliant film because it’s truly amoral. It never reproaches Michèle for her actions, nor allows its audiences to pity or be titillated by her ordeal. Instead, it asks us to consider how our emotional responses to the narrative depiction of sexual violence are themselves conditioned by rape culture. Catlike, Elle lands softly and lightly – with its intriguing antiheroine firmly on her feet.

Elle is in select cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.