"The character is more virile and sexed than her male counterparts, subverting our cinematic expectations"Canal+

I’ve had a week to sit on this review and mull over how to talk about Elle. The subject matter alone means by extension a review runs the risk of being seen as either needlessly provocative or, conversely, frustratingly anodyne and moralising. Elle, a rape revenge black comedy thriller, is challenging from its very description: how can rape be treated humorously? What even constitutes revenge for an act so heinous? Then, even more provocative, are the film’s questions of victimhood. How do we define a victim? What are the expected modes of behaviour for a victim? And even more controversially, is the victim a victim at all? Already, the beads of sweat are trailing down my face.

But this critical response is an analogue for the viewing experience. Paul Verhoeven’s film doesn’t let you settle on one answer or interpretation. He switches genres and tones with a deliberate aesthetic fickleness. One might postulate this has a mimetic function, the victim undergoing a myriad of different responses and interpretations to their trauma. That’s one reading, anyway. Another would be that Verhoeven wants to have his cake and eat it. His films often straddle genres: Robocop: action movie/capitalist satire; Starship Troopers: sci-Fi Epic/anti-war polemic; Showgirls: porno/thriller/terrible. The very seriousness of Elle is indicative of a director whose tastes and body of work is eclectic.

“Whether it’s verbal, sexual, physical or emotional, violence proliferates the film like an insidious veil”

Whether it’s verbal, sexual, physical or emotional, violence proliferates the film like an insidious veil. Each character and set piece holds the potential for destruction: Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, a survivor of violent trauma (even before the film’s inciting rape), has a propensity for being clinical and sadistic; her son, a cherubic deadbeat, cuckolded by his pregnant girlfriend, is prone to childish bursts of rage that teeter on the edge of physical abuse. But violence is also systemic. Michèle is the CEO of a video-game manufacturer, responsible for the kind of violent misogynistic video-game that the media makes culpable for real-life violence. True crime murder mysteries pollute the television screens, hinting at a culture just as responsible for the violent acts of the rapist as he himself, triggering the latent thirst for destruction in all of us. In fact, the rape itself triggers in Michèle a vengeful mission that tows ambiguous moral lines – data surveillance, sexual harassment and indiscriminate physical violence become her modes of retribution.

Such moral and psychological ambiguity in a character is a mean feat to convey. Go too far one way, your protagonist becomes an antagonist, too far the other way and they become emotionally alienating, a cipher. It is the shrewd casting of Isabelle Huppert that manages to keep Michèle relatable, if, at times, galling. Huppert paints in infinitesimal shades of grey, her glacial exterior a canvas for revelatory flickers of the eye and sardonic smirks that empower and engender sympathy in equal measure. Watch the character simultaneously seduce and spook her neighbour at a Christmas party. Huppert indicates the shift in intention with a fractional decibel decrease and a well-timed blink that softens a sinister stare.

“Huppert finds infinitesimal shades of grey, her glacial exterior a canvas for revelatory flickers of the eye and sardonic smirks that empower and engender sympathy in equal measure”

Here, Huppert’s sex symbol status in French cinema is ironised, her ‘sexiness’ utilised to provoke questions of agency – the attack is random and undeserved (all rapes are) but her subsequent actions employ her influence over the opposite sex to absurd lengths to expose the implicit misogyny of her co-workers and social circle. She confronts them with the sexualised image they project onto her. Questions of ‘sexiness’ may seem limiting regarding an actor of Huppert’s calibre, but it is precisely this weaponised seduction and carnality that Verhoeven and Huppert are challenging, and to unsettling effect – the character is more virile and sexed than her male counterparts, subverting our cinematic expectations.

This is not to say that Verhoeven is completely upending cinematic convention. He remains a master of staging. Each camera pan is delayed a fraction longer than expected, capturing the furtive glances of the men that surround Michèle and transforming the clandestine into the suspicious: everyone is a potential rapist, everyone culpable. But before Verhoeven risks our forgetting the incident at the plot’s nexus with guessing games of ‘who did it?’, he replays it from new angles, confronting us with the violence and the violation, lest we start thinking we’re watching another movie mystery. Verhoeven is ridiculing our taste for cinematic violence (of which he is also famously a progenitor) ‘you like violence? THIS is violence’, he goads. The audience is denied whatever catharsis is derived from watching their darkest desires played out on screen. Our thirst for violence, our transgressive gaze, our taboo interests are constantly interrogated.

A fabulously difficult watch, Elle provides no easy answers (and nor should it). Verhoeven and Huppert keep the audience challenged and uncomfortable, probing our thirst for violence and subsequently exposing unpleasant truths

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