Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Produced by Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt
Screenplay by David Birke based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian
Cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine
Edited by Job ter Burg
In French with English subtitles
DVD – library (2:10)
“Fortunately I have faith. What’s it for if not to get through the tough times?”
These two lines come from two different female characters in two different scenes in Elle, a film that critic Sheila O’Malley at Roger Ebert.com calls a “demented and exhilarating experience” as well as “a high-wire act without a net.” A.O. Scott at The New York Times says “It’s a psychological thriller, a strangely dry-eyed melodrama, a kinky sex farce and, perhaps most provocatively, a savage comedy of bourgeois manners.”
After reading all that, you might wonder “Just what is this film?” Seemingly it cannot be any one thing. Elle comes from Paul Verhoeven, who’s delivered movies audiences typically either love or hate (RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Showgirls) and with Elle, he gives us yet another film that pulls no punches. No one is surprised that a Verhoeven film can be called disturbing, divisive, repugnant or offensive. Yet I think there’s something there – possibly several somethings – that deserve closer examination.
Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, an executive of a video game company in Paris that produces fantasy games (at least the one we see in development) involving the assault and brutalization of its female characters. Michèle chides the game’s designer Kurt (Lucas Prisor) for not going far enough with the game’s onscreen violence. We as the audience have a difficult time reconciling this since the very first scene in Elle shows Michèle being brutally raped in her home by a masked intruder.
Yet Michèle remains mostly silent about the assault. She tells her close friends at a restaurant gathering, but then quickly dismisses it. It’s clear from this scene and others that she refuses to play the victim. We soon learn why. (MILD SPOILERS) Michèle is the daughter of the infamous Charles Leblanc, a serial killer who has been incarcerated since the 70s. All these years later, people still remember and despise Michèle just as much as they do her father. There’s even the implication that Michèle (nine years old at the time) might in some way have been complicit in her father’s crimes.
Even Michèle’s stature seems to mark her as an obvious victim. She’s visibly shorter than practically everyone else in the film, particularly the men, of whom we meet several: Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of Michèle’s best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny, above left) and the man she’s having an affair with; Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Jonas Bloquet); her neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte); her slacker son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet); her mother Irène’s (Judith Magre, below) gigolo; and the aforementioned Kurt. Initially we’re not quite sure which of the several men in the film is Michèle’s attacker, but if you think about it even a little, it’s not much of a mystery or a surprise. But then again, a whodunit is not what Verhoeven is after.
So many dynamics are at work in this film and particularly with Michèle’s character. She refuses the title of victim and seems to go out of her way to assert her authority at work, with her son, her ex-husband, and just about everyone else, male or female. Her father is a constant reminder of the past as is Michèle’s mother who insists Michèle visit him in prison. Michèle is driven, angry, tortured (physically and mentally), sarcastic, humorous, witty, fiercely intelligent, coy, aggressive, practical, observant, and so much more. Huppert is able to pull off all of these aspects of Michèle’s character and many will see the film only for her performance, which is stellar.
The rest of my comments and observations about the film will include MAJOR SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen the film, please read no further.
The first quote from the film in my review is from Michèle as she’s being driven home by Patrick, whom we’ve known for some time is her attacker. Michèle informs him that what he’s done to her – and, my implication, her not going to the police about it – is twisted. Indeed it is. But remember, Michèle has refused since childhood to play the role of the victim. Is that why she continued in this bizarre relationship with Patrick? “I was in some kind of weird denial,” she tells him, “but I see clearly now.” Things have changed.
But what changed? And when? I’ll address that in a moment.
First a question. When they’re in the car and she’s telling Patrick this, is Michèle trying to draw him into another attack? Did she drop a hint to her son at the party to follow her home? I didn’t see such a hint. (I also thought it was a little too quick for Patrick to move into attacker mode, unless he’s always ready to do so, which seems a bit untenable.) Was this final attack planned on Michèle’s part? I’m not sure. Let’s move on to the change.
I think the change in Michèle comes about during Patrick’s assault of her in his home, the point in which she turns the tables on him by calling the shots herself. Afterward, Michèle is still either confused enough to say “Thank you for dinner!” as she and her son Vincent are walking to her car or is covering up for Vincent’s benefit. (You’ll remember he was asleep on the couch while the attack was going on.) In a subsequent scene, Michèle publicly recognizes the quality of Kurt’s work, something she’d never done before. She stops lying to Anna and admits she’s the one who’s been sleeping with her husband Robert. She even acts charitably by introducing Kurt to her ex-husband Richard, telling Kurt that Richard may have an idea for a new gaming project. Of course before any of this happened, Michèle loses first her mother, then her father. She’s free for the first time since her father’s crimes, and maybe even before.
And then a character who was practically overlooked becomes important: Patrick’s wife Rebecca. (There are some definite problems with this character that I’ll discuss in a moment.)
We see in a couple of scenes that Rebecca is a devout Christian, asking that she be allowed to say grace at a dinner party and watch the Christmas Mass on television. Near the end of the film, after Patrick has been killed and his deeds found out, Michèle sees Rebecca on the street supervising the moving van that’s taking her belongings to a new home. Michèle expresses her sorrow at what’s happened and Rebecca replies “Fortunately I have faith. What’s it for if not to get through the tough times?” Earlier in the film, Michèle might’ve scoffed at these words. Now she doesn’t. I’m not going so far as to say that Michèle has become a Christian, but clearly she has made some life-changing choices including forgiveness and letting go.
Yet Rebecca’s character is problematic in a couple of ways. First, she tells Michèle, “I’m sincerely glad you could give him what he needed. For a time, at least.” That seems a highly insensitive (and offensive) thing to say to the woman who’s been raped repeatedly by her husband. Patrick needed to rape Michèle? Rebecca seems to have known at least something about Patrick’s proclivities and behavior. (Many women of faith, no doubt, do know the worst of their spouses and their behaviors. How they address and deal with that varies.) Again, if Rebecca did know, her comments are deplorable. But perhaps Rebecca is thinking only of the “friendship” between Patrick and Michèle and knows nothing about the assaults/rapes. That seems unlikely, but I suppose it’s possible.
Earlier Patrick himself had said of the assault and rape, “It was necessary.” It’s not spelled out, but I wonder if he had a connection to some of the people who were murdered by Michèle’s father. That’s pure speculation on my part. It’s more likely that Patrick is such a monster that in his messed-up psyche, he felt the assault/rape was necessary for other twisted reasons. Even at the end of Patrick’s life, as he bleeds out after being beaten by Vincent, he whispers to Michèle, “Why?” Why what? Did he think she enjoyed it? Was he that twisted? Regardless, he’s a sick, deplorable individual and we’re glad justice has been done taking this creep off the planet.
Back to Rebecca: her character is interesting if nothing else. This isn’t a movie about faith, but then again, maybe it is. Once again, Michèle may not be embracing a religious faith at the end of the film, but there’s clearly forgiveness going on in her life. There was something she didn’t understand about Rebecca during the Christmas dinner that Michèle is now beginning to rethink for herself. Michèle now has the ability to forgive, to stop lying and to heal, not just herself, but the other people in her life. The power of the film’s final scene with Michèle and Anna, forgiven and reconciled, beginning a new friendship (or new lives, if you will) while walking out of a cemetery is powerful and striking as they literally leave death behind. And the scene, oddly enough – especially for a Paul Verhoeven movie – is hopeful.
In the DVD extra “A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle,” Verhoven says “It’s my protest against genre.” He says he never once discussed the character of Michèle with Huppert. “She refuses to be a victim. I think that’s the essence of the whole story.” Verhoeven later states, “Art should represent life. Art has to do with life and art is inspired by life. And it should not be basically looking at life through a genre filter.”
Elle is a hard film to watch. I’m not even sure you can say it’s a film you can necessarily enjoy, but it contains some real treasure, perhaps the finest treasure being that of Isabelle Huppert’s powerhouse performance.
Photos: DVD Talk, Movie Bob, The CW Atlanta, Leonard Maltin