I saw this film the day after I watched Beauty & the Beast and the two movies actually have some major elements in common. First off they are both set in France and both have protagonists who are given similar sounding Gallic monikers that are words relevant to their status when translated into English. They also both feature strong women working to retain their sense of agency in the face of vile male oppression and in both this female protagonist is, at points, surprisingly forgiving of the crimes committed against her. Yet for all these connections two more contrasting films you could not hope to see. One is a totally inoffensive family movie (despite what some bigoted Russians or Malaysians may think) and the other is a very adult film that demonstrably aims to shock. If Elle director Paul Verhoeven had been tasked with adapting Disney’s classic 90s cartoon then I’m sure the suggestion inherent in the story that the heroine had inappropriate feelings towards animalistic creatures would be brought front and centre because this is a man who likes to explore sexual taboos. The events played out in Elle only involve humans but they are proportionately discomforting.
The film starts with the lead character, actually named Michelle, getting brutally sexually assaulted. When I say it starts with this I mean this happens in the opening seconds. Rather than contacting the police though Michelle sweeps up the glass that got smashed in the attack, bins her damaged clothes, wipes the blood off her legs and has a bath as nonchalantly as if she’s just spilt soup down herself. In fact she seems even less unperturbed about the whole thing than many people would be if they actually had just had an accident with a carton of mulligatawny. This is strange but it is good to see that this woman is not letting such a vile act define or destroy her.
As the film progresses though you begin first to suspect that the attack has affected her more than it first seemed and later that the damage to her psyche may actually be routed further back in her history. Elle reminded me of Chan-wook Park’s brilliant movie Stoker where Mia Wasikowska is both victim and victor and also has significant antisocial tendencies unlocked by the threatening behaviour of others. Stoker too pushed the boundaries of propriety but in that case it felt more tied to the narrative. Elle seems to have a conscious desire to provoke just for the sake of doing so. This is clearly something that has been a part of Verhoeven’s film making approach before but ultra-violence, strippers and a lack of knickers don’t carry the same level of controversy as they once did so he has had to take things further. The problem with the film is the firm suggestion that someone can be tolerant of sexual assault and possibly even get some sort of gratification from it. I certainly don’t believe that the director is justifying such acts under any circumstances but making several of his characters able to tolerate or even forgive them is disagreeable in the extreme and feels horribly chauvinist even if that wasn’t the intention. Any acceptance of rape is just not going to sit easy for anyone that respects women. I suppose Verhoeven should be commended for being prepared to examine this and in asking us to consider these notions he may actually be questioning other things that audiences will accept on screen, particularly with computer games, but some ideas simply do not need to be challenged. Rape is unforgivable, end of discussion. You took us there Paul but I’m afraid I can’t thank you for it.
There is no denying that Elle is an accomplished and constantly interesting film. Isabelle Hubbert’s enigmatic performance is brilliant and Verhoeven’s direction assured. It is outwardly a rape revenge movie but is neither as salacious as I Spit On Your Grave or as dignified as Thelma and Louise. It is, to be fair, substantially more layered than both of these films but it is just going to be too much for some people and I have to say that I am among their number.