Paul Verhoeven doesn’t do subtle. It’s a view that’s easy to countenance, if one only recalls his most famous films. Robocop; Total Recall; Basic Instinct; Starship Troopers perhaps most of all. These films wear their views openly, emblazoned on their sleeves the symbol, perhaps, of a winking smirk. Each has a position or hypothetical to explore, and does so brazenly. With the expectation that Elle will similarly examine a controversial subject through a satirical lense, a first viewing of the Dutch director’s latest in fact supplies a rush of bemusement.
It is the pleasure of confusion, triggered in stages throughout, as one realises that this film is as challenging and multifaceted as any recent mainstream release. A set position is hard to pin down, and conclusions are similarly elusive. The subject matter is under no cloud of debate, however: the wonderful Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a Parisian socialite and founding president of a videogame studio, who is violently raped at the film’s opening. Her reaction to this harrowing event, and the manner in which she attempts to resume her life, are the film’s focus.
Three generations of damaged individuals comprise the Leblanc family, including Michèle herself, and the attack to which she is victim becomes one of a few conflicts emerging in her life in the space of a few weeks. Huppert plays Michèle so frostily, so archly, that it is a struggle at times to gauge her feelings on her predicament; this is one of the major choices made by Verhoeven to play with the expectations of his audience. Having seen his films, we weigh up a few possibilities. Violent retribution at times seems a likely option. Another is a descent into fetishism and exploitation. Perhaps most disturbing of all are periods in which Michèle and Elle make little to no acknowledgement of the crime at all, segueing into family or workplace subplots.
By refusing to take a defined position on the politics of rape culture and the foulness of the crime itself, Elle becomes a challenge of a film – challenging viewers to interpret what they watch, but giving few clear hints on Verhoeven’s intentions. Michèle is in many ways a perfect example of the modern empowered woman, owning and running her own company, exerting authority over men in her professional and personal lives through a variety of tactics. Yet her developing reactions to the act of violation are so varied as to make us question that empowerment; we chuckle and cheer inwardly as she learns to shoot, or arms herself with the most powerful mace canister she can find; we cringe as she breaks the news to her friends and insists that it isn’t worth taking the police she justifiably distrusts.
If Verhoeven’s aim is to represent the truth that all women react to rape differently, and often in ways we do not expect, then one can term Elle as a success of sorts. The pervading mood of uncertainty and discomfort he creates and then curates, however, undermines this as an easy conclusion. Huppert’s commanding, authoritative presence guides us through a miasmic spectacle of criminality and guilt, seen through the eyes of an enigma – the real challenge is knowing what to think of it.