To praise Paul Verhoeven’s Elle simply for its controversial subject matter would be too easy and too dangerous. Such criticism would open the floodgates for a bevy of grossly violent films to be praised on their vulgarity alone. Not that such films don’t have anything to offer, but I think proper criticism should dig deep into a film beyond the gloss of the surface. Furthermore, being that the story of Elle revolves around a rape, one needs to also examine how such a sensitive subject is dealt with. Is the rape depicted? How is it depicted? How is the aftermath of the victim handled by the director and writer, in this case Verhoeven and David Birke, respectively?
These questions matter because just as films can have a moral and/or political role, so too should criticism. If Verhoeven’s use of rape in Elle is vile for the sake of being so without any regard for the realities of rape then it should be called out so. Finally, I am neither a woman nor a rape victim, so when I talk about Elle it needs to be done with an understanding on my part of the psychological distance I have from the character and the resulting consequences which ensue.
Moving on to what I actually think about Elle itself, I understand why the film comes off as controversial but if Verhoeven wished to be controversial then with Elle he has missed his mark. In this regard, I find Elle to be comparable to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In making Blue Velvet, I don’t think Lynch wished to be controversial, rather, he wanted to create a self-reflexive film about the desires of his audience, and the nightmare world lurking underneath the paradise of the American Dream. One of the resulting consequences is that the film comes off as controversial, which I recommend two readings for further insight: Roger Ebert’s review of the film, and a snippet from David Lipsky’s “Although, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” where David Foster Wallace airs his own thoughts on the film. Two pieces of writing with completely opposite views on Lynch’s depiction of rape in Blue Velvet.
Continuing on, Verhoeven, on the other hand has made a film where the consequence of rape is turned into a game of cat-and-mouse. Not of police officers or some other establishment of justice attempting to catch a rapist but of the film’s protagonist, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) going on that search herself. For narrative reasons that I’ll explain shortly, this works. It is also worth mentioning that because of the stigma against rape-victims, leading many women to be silent on their attacks, it further makes sense that Michèle would want nothing to do with the police.
Elle opens on a black-screen. We then hear a crash followed by grunts and moans. The second image is not of the rape but of a cat watching the attack in process. Here, by choosing to instead indirectly show the rape through inference, Verhoeven makes the nightmare of the attack worse for his audience to endure. It’s the same creed followed by horror films such as Alien where the unseen is made all the more terrifying due to the powers of imagination.
The rapist leaves, and in the ensuing moments the woman—who we’ll soon learn is Michèle—cleans up her apartment and takes a bath, proceeding with the rest of her night as if nothing happened. But that’s not entirely true. In playing Michèle, Huppert draws powerfully from a well of emotions, not to spring forth melodramatically, but to continuously ripple quite eerily. Throughout the film, Huppert wears a certain look, one of poise, determination, and danger—assets that she has honed in order to survive as a woman in the world.
Michèle is the director of a video-game development team. Not just any video-game development team, however, but a team developing a porno game where a princess is violently raped by a demon. The entire staff save for Michèle and her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) are male, so it would initially seem as if there exists an explicit sense of awkward misogyny in the office, and there does but it’s just not awkward. On seeing the first draft of the rape scene, Michèle tells her team to increase the violence, because it’s not enough. Once again, like her outward behavior following her attack, Michèle doesn’t exhibit a reaction her audience thinks she would, perhaps best seen in her pursuing of her rapist.
With the coyness of Michèle’s character, Verhoeven says he has created a new type of female protagonist. Michèle doesn’t fit evenly into standard audience expectations of a cinematic woman. In adapting Elle, Verhoeven stressed that he didn’t go about doing so with the intent of creating a rape-revenge exploitation film, and so he doesn’t view it as one, and I’m inclined to agree. Elle differentiates from exploitation films because it lacks an over-the-top quality but rather grounds itself in our reality. Yet despite being grounded in reality, Michèle defies our expectations, thus leading back to Verhoeven’s comment on the new type of powerful female.
Verhoeven’s creation of this powerful female is where I think Elle both succeeds but also falters. On the one hand, Michèle has a great sense of power and agency by taking the situation into her own hands, especially with such confidence. Furthermore, Verhoeven creates the terrifying reality that any of the males in Michèle’s life could be her attacker. Scenes where Michèle is alone with a male or when she is simply alone play out with a sense of dread running in the background. Is this her attacker? Is she safe? What will happen now? These are the questions that popped in my head and kept me on the edge of the seat or rather cowering in the back of it. Elle is rightly a horror movie.
But, Michèle’s search for her attacker also brings a moral problem when discussing the emotional effects a narrative can have on an audience in relation to sexual assault. Verhoeven directs the scenes where Michèle is alone or alone with a man with a sense of self-awareness of the hidden dangers present. For example, in the former, Verhoeven creates an emphasis on the background of Michèle’s apartment through deep-focus and composition. Michèle is made to always linger in front of a window, a door, an open space, an entryway, etc. Essentially, Michèle is made vulnerable to an attack through being surrounded by an open-space. Verhoeven knows this to be the case, because he fakes-out the audience multiple times through jump-scares—false flags that the attacker is present.
The issue I have is Verhoeven’s directing style in Elle as a device where the serious and dangerous issue of rape and the search of a rapist is turned into a titillating experience for the audience. Essentially, Elle is turned into a game of “Guess-Who.” The problem isn’t that Elle stirs a feeling of fear in the audience or that Michèle is the one going on the search and not official law enforcement but of Verhoeven’s teasing of who the attacker could be. Later on in the film when the identity of the attacker is revealed, Verhoeven’s teasing transforms from who the attacker could be into teasing of the consequences of the attacker’s presence in Michèle’s private life, as evidenced by one scene towards the end of the film where Michèle purposefully places herself in danger.
For me, this basement scene is the exemplary apex of the problem I have with Elle, because I don’t think it serves a purpose other than to be tormenting for the audience. Yet, in this very same scene Verhoeven takes that sense of titillation and sweeps it out from the film in order to give Michèle power over her attacker, which implies that Michèle receives her own perverse thrill from the matter—like Dorothy Vallens from Blue Velvet (Isabella Rossellini).
Admittedly, it’s a smart moment in the film but takes too long to be reached. Along the way, the film juggles multiple plot-lines. Michèle’s son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) has a dead-end job and an abusive girlfriend, Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) is cheating on her with Michèle, and finally, Michèle’s father is once again up for parole decades after going on a murder spree in which he enlisted the adolescent Michèle to help with by way of burning their house down—all stories worthy of their own films, and it’s just that. Elle is cobbled together and what results from this combination of stories seem more like accidents rather than on purpose. In making Michèle the head of a video-game development team, I doubt Verhoeven was really aware of how deep misogyny runs in that industry, but it’s inclusion in the film seemingly adds a layer to the story’s depth by helping to characterize how powerful Michèle is and by including more men who are dim-witted. These plot-lines aren’t so much explored as they’re used to drag the film towards an ending Verhoeven finds appropriate.
I don’t think Elle is a controversial film. Neither do I think is it gross. It’s a disturbing film not in a way that is boundary pushing but just rather rude.