Reading interviews with Paul Verhoeven on the publicity trail for his latest movie, Elle, you get the sense he might be disappointed at the relative lack of outrage over his ‘psycho-thriller’. The film, based on Philippe Djian’s prize-winning 2012 novel, Oh…, stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc. It begins with her being raped by a man in a ski mask, who has broken into her house.
The daughter of an infamous serial killer, Michèle doesn’t go to the police, but increases her home security, sleeps with an axe under the pillow and tries to work out who her assailant was. He continues to contact her. During a second attack, Michèle manages to unmask him, revealing her neighbour Patrick, a man we have witnessed her spying on as she masturbates. In the final part of the film, they have a series of encounters that blur the line between assault and consent: Michèle knows it is ‘necessary’ for Patrick’s pleasure that he believes her to be unwilling; we see her writhing on the floor, consumed by pleasure.
The slew of positive reviews – mostly written by men – tend to gloss over the troubling progression from violent rape to rape fantasy, and the few critics who deviate from the consensus tend to denounce the film outright, and argue that Michèle isn’t believable or likeable. As well as Peter Bradshaw’s five star review, the Guardian published a piece by Bidisha that described the film as a rape apologist’s ‘celluloid treat’, with Michèle ‘depicted as a spiteful, sneaky woman-betrayer with an eye for her friends’ partners’, disgusted by her mother’, governed by ‘masochism, misogyny, venality and irrationality’.
But to target Michèle’s character is to misfire. One of the most disturbing things about this very disturbing film is her intense, consuming believability. As Roe McDermott has written, drawing on her own experience of assault, to see Michèle as either ‘strong’ or ‘cold’, ‘heroic’ or ‘unsympathetic’, reinforces the idea that there is a correct response to being raped: the burden is placed on the victim.
Over the course of Elle’s 130 minutes, the complex and often contradictory strands of a woman’s psyche are presented with nuance and depth. Michèle’s possessive jealousy of the ex-husband she no longer desires is not a stock ‘hysterical’ response; we see her grieve for her dying mother as well as despair of her eccentricities. The film breaks ground in its portrayal of an older woman’s sexuality, particularly in the two sequences that feature her masturbating and in its exploration of masochism and submission. Michèle’s only halfway equal relationship is with her best friend and business partner, Anna; the amount of time they spend attending to the needs of men far less capable then they are makes a feminist point in itself.
Elle is about ‘her’ in every sense: the deciphering of Michèle’s behaviour drives the narrative, while compounding the objectification and commodification of her as a universalised and eroticised female subject. Jacqueline Rose, in Sexuality in the Field of Vision, writes about the ‘woman as spectacle’, and the link between voyeurism and ‘damaged’ female characters: ‘The woman is by definition troubled because the category of female sexuality has already been constituted as disturbance at this level of narrative form.’ In her chapter on Daniel Deronda, Rose argues that the desire to repress and master a woman is a response to the subversive, disruptive female body:
As if desire lights upon its object, finds itself disarmed and then punishes the woman for the upset produced. Only a woman whose charm leaves the onlooker’s own identity intact can escape the weight of a condemnation which has been decided almost before the question has been put: ‘Probably evil; why else was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?’
It could be argued that Elle puts Michèle’s body on the line to interrogate the condition of the female body in cinema. Although the writers and director are male, Huppert is a co-creator: the film would be nothing without her incandescent performance. Yet the film still constructs her as an erotic object responding to dominant masculine power. At times Michèle is a voyeuristic spectator, masturbating and watching Patrick through binoculars, yet this partial subversion of the trope of the male gaze still makes the woman the spectacle: the audience is shown Michèle, not what she sees. Michèle’s pleasure-taking doesn’t bring her much power. For every cinemagoer who sees Elle as a nuanced exploration of consent, there will be another who sees only that ‘she likes it’.
I went to a late showing of the movie, and walked home alone. The general unease I feel as a woman moving through a potentially hostile space was heightened: I couldn’t get the rape scenes out of my head. Context matters. A few days after I saw Elle, a story broke about the Brazilian goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes de Souza, who tortured and murdered Eliza Samudio, his former girlfriend and the mother of his child, in 2013. Recently released from prison, he told the press that ‘what happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happen in life – I’m not a bad guy.’ Elle portrays men as vulnerable and incompetent, but in this very weakness there is a manipulative power. Viewers may even feel sorry for Patrick, when he eventually gets his head bashed in by Michèle’s son, who interrupts what he assumes to be his mother’s rape.
In March, the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival programmed an event featuring Tom Stranger talking about the book he wrote with Thordis Elva, the woman he raped. Stranger – blond, handsome – is the acceptable face of sexual assault: contrite, apologetic and self-promoting. In the weeks prior to the event, he was plastered across the Evening Standard, and interviewed on Newsnight and Woman’s Hour. Liv Wynter, protesting against the talk (which was rescheduled), argued that the notion of a ‘good rapist’ like Stranger requires a corresponding ‘good survivor’ – a woman who forgives her attacker for his ‘mistake’.
Bridget Minamore pointed out that if Stranger were black, ‘he would not be allowed to stand on a stage and admit he was a rapist. Working class men with criminal records are not given congratulatory platforms by arts organisations.’ There is one black character in Elle, played for laughs. It is unlikely that Michèle’s son would avoid the legal consequences of killing his neighbour – even in defence of his mother – if he weren’t a white man from an affluent background. Instead, the event enables him to ‘grow up’, reaffirming the power structures of masculinity, violence and control. As a comment on the misogyny inherent in so much visual culture, the ending of Elle is disappointing. Michèle doesn’t even get to kill Patrick herself.