Startlingly strange rape-revenge black comedy
With her steely hauteur, Isabelle Huppert is utterly arresting in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative film. No other actor could have pulled it off
This film is about an outrage. Maybe it is an outrage. It has invented a new genre: the rape-revenge black comedy, and it could not possibly have existed without Isabelle Huppert. She is the only star capable of carrying this off, the only actor with sufficient hauteur to reassure you that all of the film’s provocations are 100% intentional. It would be inconceivable without her armoury of tics: the Mona Lisa smile of faint amusement, the veiled mask of weary disapproval, or the occasional widening of the eyes to indicate fleeting astonishment at something or someone more than usually stupid. She has a face that makes it look as if she is wearing a pair of exceptionally expensive and stylish dark glasses, even when she isn’t. And Elle needed the unique and reckless chutzpah of its director, Paul Verhoeven, whose brash movies have commanded a certain allegiance among cinephiles: I found myself remembering the hip young dudes in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, arguing about whether the awfulness of Verhoeven’s Showgirls was deliberate. I wonder what they would have made of Elle.
Preposterous is, as it were, this film’s middle name … or one of them, along with gripping, mind-boggling and hilarious. It is a bulging package of twists, ironies and jaw-slackeningly scandalous moments. Screenwriter and genre veteran David Birke has adapted the award-winning novel Oh… by French author Philippe Djian, which came out in 2012. But the action of the film could be taking place really at any time in the last 20, 30 or even 40 years. Is it post-feminist? Pre-feminist? Non-feminist? Perhaps the exclusion of that debate is part of its effect.
Huppert plays the divorced and wonderfully elegant Michèle (could she play any other type of character?), who has a wide circle of family and friends and is the rather unlikely co-founder and co-director of a highly successful videogame company in Paris. She has no problem with her violent games objectifying women. “The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid!” she tells a programmer in one scene.
One afternoon, Michele is raped in her house by a masked attacker, who has broken in through the french windows. She is reluctant to call the police because she happens to be the daughter of a notorious imprisoned serial killer, to whose horrors she was an intimate witness as a little girl, and for which the tabloids imply she bears some complicit guilt. She is still shouted at in the street; she is used to casual hatred, but realises that a publicised rape case will only reawaken the abuse.
So she has apparently no choice but to treat the rape with a Huppertian moue of dismissal. But she has her suspicions as to who the culprit is, and there may still be a chance of luring her attacker into the open with an ambiguous cat-and-mouse game, hinting that this unspeakable ordeal was for her a darkly pleasurable role-play.
It could hardly get more incorrect than that. Even given the traditional objection to rape-revenge – simply a way for men to enjoy the spectacle of rape and then violence – there is an understanding that the movie will ultimately deliver on the “revenge” part of the deal. But does Elle do that?
It certainly does deliver extraordinary and surreal scenes in which Michèle goes into denial, in which her subsequent behaviour is symptomatic of the renewed, repressed pain of childhood abuse, and in which her nightmarish situation is still somehow absorbed into a sophisticated lifestyle of business meetings and dinner parties. There is an extraordinary moment in which she casually announces to friends, over dinner at an expensive restaurant, just as the champagne has been brought, that she has been raped. The waiter is curtly asked to wait a few minutes before popping the cork.
Elle is an utterly arresting and extraordinarily strange film, right up to the final shot, a beautiful-friendship scene that could be a homage to Casablanca. Whether it fully understands – or cares – how offensive it succeeds in being on a moment-by-moment basis is an open question. Huppert’s magnificent performance glazes everything with mystery and is an essential flavour for its dark and sulphurous absurdity.
Is this her finest hour? It would have been great to see her get the Oscar, if only for an acceptance speech full of superbly detached bemusement.