Elle is a provocative and confrontational thriller focusing on a female lead character who gets off on being brutally assaulted and raped. So like, WTF?
There’s an unavoidable sense that Dutch director and provocateur Paul Verhoeven is delighting in courting controversy in his new film, Elle. In a confronting intro, the lead character Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is home alone when an intruder in a ski mask shatters the peace, bursting through the front door (I jumped 3 feet off my seat in unison with those around me) and throwing his victim to the floor. The masked man overcomes Michèle’s frantic resistance by slapping her time and again around the face, then rapes her. Shocking stuff, but we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
See, Michèle doesn’t report the assault to the cops, and within days her rapist (Laurent Lafitte) returns for an encore. Some time later, it happens again. Then again. And by now, it has become evident that Michèle is excited by the attacks, all of which are accompanied by vicious beatings. Okaaay.
So, what’s going on here? A character study of a damaged woman? An artistically courageous investigation into the dark side of human sexuality? Rampant shit-stirring by a director messing with his viewers’ heads? However Elle is wrapped up, at its core it veers perilously close to male rape fantasy (the director, screenwriter and writer of the novel on which the film is based are all male). Skating on very thin ice here, Mr Verhoeven!
There has to be a good reason for making a film like this. Glib utterances about the job of the artist being to delve into the murkiest reaches of the human psyche don’t cut it. Not unless the artist brings back something enlightening, something of worth that helps us to better understand our humanity. That is not the case here as far as I can see, and that’s troubling. Why?
Firstly, because the victim not only begins to get off on being beaten and raped, but actually becomes complicit, relegating a brutal crime to a dangerous but thrilling game. Having unmasked her attacker, she willingly goes into a noise-proofed basement with him for another smacking up and ravaging, and when it’s over lies alone on the floor as he watches, writhing and moaning uncontrollably. Whether from pain or pleasure is uncertain – the two are blurred for this woman, and appear to fuse into one.
Whatever, the upshot is that rape is reduced to a sexual variant, rather than a monstrous violation through brute physical force. Can rape ever be sanctioned like this? Surely not. I suppose one question that does arise, though, is whether victim complicity transforms it into something else, something less than criminal. As to whether that’s a question worth pondering and building a film around – well, that’s for you to decide. I think my stance on the matter is obvious.
Another troubling element here is that the violence, while graphic and shocking, is trivialised in that Michèle never sustains any serious injury from the beatings. Some minor facial bruising and a swelling around one eye is evident after the first attack, but from then on she appears to escape unmarked and unhurt. At one stage the rapist grabs her front on and hammers the back of her head into a brick wall with fearsome force multiple times – no skull fracture results, no concussion, not even cuts to her head. Shirking realism like this opens rather than clangs shut the possibility that the rapist’s violent attacks may be perceived as somehow palatable.
Verhoeven makes no attempt to solve the riddle of Michèle for us, except to reveal that she despises her father, who put her through unspeakable trauma as a child. Viewers seeking to understand her mindset and actions are left to join the psychological dots. I’m not suggesting audiences need spoonfeeding (there’s too much of that). However, in this case it seems to me that the filmmakers have a responsibility to give us more clues into why the lead character might respond to rape and battery as she does.
And get this: the misogynistic violence of the rapist is put down to his “tortured soul,” with the astonishing addendum that he is otherwise a “good person” – or words to that effect. His wife actually thanks Michèle for servicing his needs. Lawd save us.
Putting the troublesome aspects of the film aside, which you can’t, it works well as a thriller to a point, but is too long. That’s about the best I can say of it.
Look, I’m not for a moment suggesting Elle should be banned or censored. My strong view is that censorship has no place in art, the primary business of which is to investigate all areas of human experience. But of course, with freedom of expression comes responsibility. The question I ask is whether this is responsible filmmaking from Verhoeven. My contention is that any film that features a lead female character who gets off on being violently assaulted and raped needs to have a sound raison d’être, and that that is not the case here.
Movie website: http://sonyclassics.com/elle/
Elle features: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: David Birke (screenplay), based on the novel by Philippe Djian
Australian release date: 27 Oct 2016 (@ Cinema Paradiso and Luna On SX in Perth)
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