Elle (2016)

Elle
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: David Birke
Based on: Philippe Djian‘s novel Oh…
Cast: Isabelle HuppertLaurent LafitteAnne ConsignyCharles BerlingVirginie EfiraJudith MagreChristian Berkel
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 27.10.2016

[CW: Rape]

Plot:
Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is the head of a video game company. Successful, rich, happily divorced with two grown children, Michèle has a great life. But that is disrupted when an intruder brutally assaults and rapes her in her home. Afterwards Michèle struggles to get her life back under control, by alternatively pretending that nothing happened and buying various weapons. And it may very well be that this encounter with the rapist won’t be her last.

In the hands of another writer and director, Elle might have been a film that was smart about the difficult topic it approaches and that I would have actually liked. But I absolutely hated the film we got. SO MUCH HATE.

[SPOILERS]

There are two ways I could have liked the film. One, if Verhoeven/Birke had only tackled the Christmas party Michèle is throwing for her family and neighbors, leaving all the rape stuff aside, because that scene was absolutely hilarious and I wouldn’t have minded if it had been drawn out into feature length. And the other way was if a writer/director team (maybe actually – radical idea – women themselves) with some psychological sensitivity who know what they’re talking about had tackeld the rape stuff.

Because it could have been interesting. It is later revealed in the film that the rapist is Michèle’s neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Michèle then starts an affair with him where the sex becomes very violent indeed. And of course, one way for Michèle to get control back of her life (and that is one of the biggest issues with rape for the survivors) is to control, basically, when she’s being raped. If she goes looking for Patrick, she won’t have to worry about him surprising her again.

But that is not the narrative that the film tells. Instead Michèle is being stylized into a psychopath – and she’s always been categorized as one, because, as it’s revealed in one of the more ludicrous turns of events in a film that is full of stupid decisions, her father was a mass murderer and she had to help him. Even though she was only 10-years-old, apparently that made her a psychopath in the eyes of everyone. And I just don’t buy it. Maybe if she had been a little older, but even so… what we get here is the conflation of probably harmful survival strategies with (heavily stigmatized and sensationalized) mental illness and just… no. Especially since I actually heard comments from people in the audience afterwards that this film was about “an ice-cold business woman who actually wants to get beaten and who loves getting raped”. And, dammit, if that is the take-away for some people from your film about a rape survivor who gets into a (problematic) BDSM relationship afterwards, YOU’RE DOING EVERYTHING WRONG.

It’s been a very, very long time that I felt so tortured by watching a film and that I considered – several times – to just get up and leave. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I can urge you not to repeat my mistake. Just stay away.

Summarizing: HATE.

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2 thoughts on “Elle (2016)

  1. I never got the feeling that Elle was a psychopath. I just saw her as a human being, with all the complexities, contraries and idiosyncracies that involves. And when people take the development of the plot as sign that she secretly wanted to get raped, that – IMVHO – says more about the people than the film. Absolutely not what I took out of it. But yeah, it’s definitely a very controversial film, and we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one ;-).

    • I don’t think she’s a psychopath, either, but that’s how the movie framed it for me with the narrative about her father and her involvement in his murder spree. If it wasn’t to cast doubt on her character, why was it introduced at all? I would have liked it, if it was to show how unfairly women are treated after they become victims of male violence, but that simply never became clear.

      And of course, if people read the film that way, it’s their interpretation. But I can’t absolve the film of all responsibility in that regard because it could and should have made it clearer that this is not the reading it intends.

      But yeah, to each their own interpretation. :)

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