This essay contains major spoilers
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, released in 2016, has been described as a ‘surreal social satire,’ a ‘masterpiece of suave perversity,’ and, perhaps most memorably, as a ‘rape-revenge black-comedy.’ However one wishes to define the film, Elle is wholly engaged with the dialectics of female empowerment and subjugation, exploring sexual violence through the eyes of a woman who clearly refuses to be a victim. Though the film is closer in visual imagery and thematic concerns to the rape-revenge films of the 1970s, Elle is far more complicated and ambiguous, avoiding the clear-cut moral solutions on which these narratives are predicated. There is no conventional unmasking of the villain at the end of the film, nor is there a satisfying defeat over the abusive male characters. Instead, Elle subverts the traditional structures of rape-revenge narratives; and, in doing so, creates an entirely new type of heroine.
Elle is the story of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), who is attacked and raped by an unknown assailant in her Paris home. Unable to go to the police, Michèle is forced to take matters into her own hands, questioning the possibility that her attacker is someone she knows. The men in her life, most of whom rely on Michèle for support, each have a reason to resent her, forcing her to buy pepper spray and an axe in order to protect herself at home. But when the rapist is finally revealed to be her next-door neighbour Patrick, Michèle begins to play a dangerous sexual game with him, blurring the lines between victim and aggressor, between innocence and complicity.
In her essay on rape-revenge films, Carol Clover suggests that “the female victim-hero is the one…whose experience structures the action from beginning to end. Every narrative and cinematic device is deployed to draw us into her perceptions: her pain and humiliation at the rape, her revenge calculations, her grim satisfaction when she annihilates her assailant.” While this is certainly true in horror films – in which the audience is required to identify with the protagonist – Verhoeven has no such concerns, depicting Michèle as cold, acerbic and utterly inscrutable. After being raped in the opening scenes of the film, Michèle gets up and sweeps the floor, runs a bath, and books a check-up at her local clinic. Our expectations of how a woman should behave after such an event are entirely thwarted, drawing us in to a character whose inner life can only be approximated. Of course, this is not to say that Michèle is indifferent to her rape. The attack – which largely happens off-screen – has repercussions that affect the entire narrative, though her refusal to be a victim is what the audience feels most keenly.
In much the same way, Michèle is apathetic to the patriarchal rules of the world around her, a world which insists on viewing her within the limitations of her sex. As the CEO of a successful video game company, Michèle is clearly comfortable in a male-dominated setting, though she is frequently forced to assert her power as a woman. When one of her employees, dissatisfied with their new game, tells her that her background in publishing makes her unsuitable for the job, she stands up and tells him, “Maybe Anna and I should have founded a different company. Maybe we’re just two bitches who got lucky, but the fact is…the boss here is me.” The same thing happens when the rapist is discovered watching Michèle’s house one night. Though she says she is fine, her neighbour Rebecca insists that her husband should walk her home, mistaking Michèle’s nonchalance for false modesty. Throughout the entire film, the people around her continually question how capable she actually is, even though she is far more competent than any of the male characters. In this way, Elle can be read as an examination of the ways in which women are expected to behave, and how – when they don’t – they are often discredited, disbelieved, or disregarded altogether.
But because of Michèle’s deep-but-secret interiority, the audience is left to guess why she acts the way she does, particularly once the identity of the rapist is revealed. Most rape-revenge films equate passivity with penetration, an idea which is clearly subverted when Michèle stabs him through the hand with a pair of scissors. Pulling off his mask, Michèle is shocked to discover that her attacker is Patrick, though her attraction to him remains intact, leading her to engage in a semi-consensual relationship with him. While Philippe Djian’s novel makes the reasons for this clear, Verhoeven opts for something more elliptical, forcing us to speculate on her true motives. Does Michèle engage with him in this way to get revenge, or because of her own perverse desires?
This question, of how much Michèle connives in her own undoing, is an interesting one, largely because there are no easily-drawn conclusions. She is obviously, to some degree, an amoral character – she has an affair with her best friend’s husband, tortures her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, and delights in embarrassing her mother in front of the guests at her Christmas party – though none of this has any bearing on her rape, except when she admits that “shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.” She obviously has sexual feelings for Patrick before finding out his real identity, and the scene in which she follows him down into the basement would suggest that she does take at least some pleasure in these attacks. Perhaps more interestingly is what this means for us, the audience. If Michèle is complicit in her own rape, can we still sympathise with her as the victim-hero? And, if we can, are we somewhat missing the point?
But in spite of this, there is still a question of Michèle’s collusion to rape culture, particularly in the fact that the video games she produces are filled with extreme examples of sexual violence. “The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid!” she says to a roomful of her employees. “When the player guts an orc, he needs to feel the blood on his hands!” She also has little respect for the type of people who buy her games, describing the demographic as one “oblivious to quality.” In this way, Elle forces us to acknowledge our own position on violence in the media, exploring a Brechtian paradox in which the viewer recognises that sexual violence is wrong without being able to fully sympathise with Michèle. It is never once implied that she deserves to be violated because of her position on these matters, but we also understand that depictions of violence in art have serious moral repercussions. As such, Verhoeven forces us – through the use of this Brechtian distanciation – to accept our own desire to see these violent narratives play out, even when these conventions are continuously being thwarted.
According to Susan Brownmiller, rape is “not a crime of irrational, impulsive lust…but a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession.” Since the 1970s, rape has been redefined as an issue of power rather than sex, and this is also true in Elle, where violent sexual acts emerge from overt feelings of male powerlessness. Michèle’s marriage to Richard, a failed writer who constantly tries to pitch her his story ideas, ends after he hits her, an act designed to punish her for his own shortcomings. He tells her it’s the thing he regrets most in life, though Michèle seems more angry at the fact he still relies so heavily on her. But Patrick, though we never find out much about his motives or back-story, also uses violence as a way to exert power, and his desire to rape Michèle is clearly connected to his unfulfilling marriage. He regards his wife Rebecca, a staunch Catholic, with quiet derision, and is embarrassed by her constant desire to express her faith. We see little of their married life, but he is passive and obliging around her, meekly asking where he should place the figures in her nativity scene. His rape of Michèle, then, is a clear expression of his own powerlessness, an attempt for him to reassert his ailing masculinity. When Michèle leads him down to the basement and urges him to rape her, he says only, “It doesn’t work like that…not for me.” By attempting to show him that this is a consensual act, Michèle effectively becomes the author of her own story, refusing to be defined purely by his needs and desires.
Elle is filled with ineffectual male characters, though it is her father who haunts the narrative most dramatically. When Michèle was a child, he went on a killing spree that claimed 27 human lives (and a number of animals too, according to her). Coerced into making a fire to burn down their house, Michèle’s involvement denies her the label of victim, leaving her unable to go to the police to report her rape. In the public eye, she is remembered as The Ash-girl, alone and naked, standing in front of a blazing pyre: “The photo of a little girl as psychopath, next to her father, the psychopath.” When her best friend Anna urges her to go to the police, she says, “This is different. You’re the victim.” “I was the victim then!” replies Michèle.
With the announcement of her father’s parole hearing, a woman in a café dumps a tray of food on her, whispering, “Scum – you and your father.” In this way, Michèle is still paying for the crimes of someone else, a man whom she feels has robbed her of her innocence. Of course, this narrative is contrasted with that of her rape, both of which force Michèle to be defined on somebody else’s terms. After the death of her mother, she decides to visit him in prison – something she has never done before. She writes a list of things she means to say to him, but when she arrives, finds he has killed himself upon learning of her visit. When she is shown his body, she says only one thing: “I killed you by coming here.” Despite being unable to express her barely-disguised anger, Michèle’s actions and decisions disrupt the narrative once again; there can be no doubt that she is entirely in control of the outcome of her story. While she was forced to play a passive role as a child, she now understands that she can do so no longer; or, as Mark Kermode suggests, “Michèle may be always crashing in the same car, but at least she’s in the driver’s seat.”
Conversely, Elle is also filled with examples of powerful female characters, characters who drive the narrative forward far more effectively than their male counterparts. Anna, Michèle’s best friend and business partner, is her opposite in many ways. Though she does not possess Michèle’s icy intelligence or wit, she is maternal and compassionate: qualities that Michèle herself lacks. Though her strongest qualities are all traditionally feminine, she is still presented as a strong character, one who Michèle can rely on almost exclusively. When Michèle finally reveals that she has been sleeping with her husband, Anna breaks it off without hesitation, asking her, “What did you see in him anyway?” She is angry with Michèle (and reproaches her in the final scene of the film), but Verhoeven avoids the typical trope of women fighting over a man. Instead, they are both incredulous that they felt anything for him in the first place.
Michèle’s mother Irène is another example of female strength in Elle, though she is also nothing like her daughter. Enjoying her retirement, Irène is both elegant and glamorous, spending money on botox and her young lover Ralf. Though she also possesses a quick wit and feline acidity, it is clear that she and Michèle have a strained relationship (largely stemming from their difference in opinion about Michèle’s father). Yet Irène is also the only character that seems equal to Michèle, able to stand up to her daughter in a way that others seems too afraid to do. After being humiliated by Michèle, she confronts her, asking, “Are you aware how mean you were to me at dinner? You’re cruel when you find anything or anyone unpleasant. I’m on the list, apparently.” The fact that this is the last conversation they have is unfortunate, though she continues to influence her daughter after her death, even coaxing her to finally visit her father in prison – something Michèle insists she would never do.
When discussing the film in 2016, Isabelle Huppert described Michèle “as the result of men’s failure,” of belonging to a time in which men “are finally coming off the pedestal.” In this way, perhaps Elle is a sign of things to come, of what kinds of female heroes we can come to expect in a time of waning male power structures. Michèle is certainly not a female role model (nor are we ever supposed to think of her as such), but she is more morally complex and unpredictable than any number of female heroines – not content with merely taking charge of her own story but rewriting it altogether. Perhaps, for some men, this is the scariest thing imaginable; or, as her ex-husband tells her, “The real danger, Michèle, is you.”