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An Assault, And Everything That Came After

In Paul Verhoven’s ‘Elle,’ Isabelle Huppert takes control as both actress and auteur.

Sony Pictures Classics

Michèle LeBlanc is surrounded by shitty food and feckless men. She’s haughty to an extreme, nothing is up to her standard, and she unleashes a taunting superiority toward everyone and everything around her, including her rapist. In the first scene, of Paul Verhoven’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is roughly assaulted during the daytime by a masked intruder in her home in the suburbs of Paris. The debris of her bourgeois, orderly life is shattered all around: She lies on broken shards of wine glasses and smashed fine china, Mozart playing loudly in the background.

And then, life goes on. Michèle takes a bath, and in the white bubbles a heart-shaped blood stain forms at her crotch. She watches, and then wipes it away. She orders sushi. (“What’s a holiday roll?” she asks on the phone, one of the first times we hear her voice.) The response in the audience is laughter, both at the humor of the words—what is a holiday roll?—and releasing emotional discomfort. If we’re used to rape being treated certain ways in films, Elle subverts and pushes through those expectations.

It’s difficult to write about what Elle is without writing about what it isn’t. It’s not a “rape comedy,” as it was described at Cannes—this would imply Verhoven’s film displays an irreverence about rape, the way a director like Pedro Almodóvar might use it. Elle is instead a deadly serious and deeply reasoned film about rape, not solely from the director’s point of view—Verhoeven doesn’t examine his character coldly—but from Michèle herself, (and by proxy, Huppert) who undertakes an intellectual examination of her rape and rapist. It’s a shift that takes responsibility of rape away from victim and towards the perpetrator.

Rape is too often used as a plot point in film—there are few movies that focus not only the action but its aftermath. (This may have something to do with how few films have been made by women.) The aftermath in Elle includes Michèle’s daily grind of work surrounded by men who hate her, family relations with a loser son and tacky mother, and also her sex life of illicit affairs. (Both her character and the film are extremely French in this way, almost a parody of French adultery dramas). But the underlying tragedy in these everyday actions is that after a rape, a part of you dies yet you go on living, like a corporal ghost. Elle nails this survivor’s point-of-view. There’s even a scene in which she plays dead while her disappointing lover fucks her.

Another form that films about sexual assault often take is the “rape revenge,” in which a woman takes a phallic knife or gun and avenges the rape by striking these tools against men, becoming, in a way, the rapist. These phallic-centric fantasies have little to do with a survivor’s experience—in my view, the rape revenge film is most often a male fantasy.

In a crucial scene in Elle, after Michèle literally unmasks her attacker, she stares him in the eye, challenging him, unblinking—her rapist is someone she knows, one of the weakest of the weak men surrounding her. Why else would he rape? It’s an all-too-familiar paradox, that someone can be friend and rapist, lover and rapist, relative and rapist. Michèle refuses to let her attacker escape this contradiction by being one role or the other; she forces him to be both at once.

Rather than examine rape as an extreme action, Elle focuses on the essence of rape: consent and power. Emotions are muddied and complex in the film, but the lines of consent are crystal clear: Michèle is violently raped (without consent) and later clearly chooses to have violent sex (with consent). Though some might judge the way she chooses to have sex, or whom she chooses to have it with, frankly that’s none of our business. Both director and actress also agree it’s not their business what turns on this character either—some things are politely out of bounds of examination. What’s important for looking at rape is simply whether Michèle consented to it or not. In a tricky plot twist, when Michèle does give her consent to someone she’d been attracted to, when the power is obviously hers, the man who had been her rapist loses his power of violation. He can’t do it when the power is hers.

Much of Elle is simple and grotesque—like a fairy tale with a moral lesson plus the extra-moral haunting effects always part of the best old fairy tales. Huppert is like the only real person in this Perrault-esque tale and her performance is packed with funny and bizarre reactions to this weird world. Every moment she’s on screen (which is every scene) she’s fascinating to watch with her exasperated exclamations, loud gaffaws, and instinctive gestures—she licks red wine off her hand, she plays a quick air guitar while dancing awkwardly to Iggy Pop. Huppert said at the New York Film Festival that Verhoeven gave her complete control to react in her own way. “I think Paul said that he was interested with what I was doing, because since I was a woman, by definition I would know more than him, what I was supposed to do. It is a kind of documentary about a woman,” she said.

Her performance is a clear case of actress as auteur, and most recent criticism that looks at this as a rape film by men—the sharp script by David Birke is based on a novel by Philippe Djian—overlooks that. Huppert as Michèle is our guide through rape’s heart of darkness. Her scenes confronting her rapist intellectually are among the best in her obscenely illustrious career. She’s knowing, shocked, further knowing, and undaunted, as if she had nothing to lose. She’s like the curious woman in Perrault’s Tale of Bluebeard who wants to look in the forbidden room. “Why did you do it?” she asks her rapist directly. “It was necessary,” he says to this powerful woman with a well-known trauma in her past. And it feels shocking and true to his logic. Elle is clean, deep, and uncomfortable. Michèle looks directly into the mind of a rapist and those who protect him, and what she finds is unsettling.