Is the film sexist? Does director Paul Verhoeven hate women? Eleanor Woodhouse and Doug Dillaman on the provocative French rape-revenge thriller-slash-comedy, Elle.
Eleanor Woodhouse: Let’s cut straight to the chase: Elle is a film that purposefully seeks to agitate. And its director, Paul Verhoeven (he of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers fame), invited controversy from the moment that news of this project, his first in ten years, broke. It’s a comedy. It tells the story of a woman who is raped, and it’s made by the man who brought Showgirls into this world. Film critics have been gleefully bracing themselves for this particular bonfire to ignite, for the flurry of thinkpieces which would all boil down to answering the same question: Is the film sexist? This question also promised to solve the larger mystery that Showgirls created: Does Verhoeven hate women? My short answer? No. Strangely, this seems to be literally everybody else’s answer too. Every reviewer is itching to defend Elle, but the fact is - at this point - not a single dissenter exists. It’s actually taken the wind out of everyone’s sails, and would have been an anticlimax of sorts if the film was not only not sexist, but also astonishingly good.
Every reviewer is itching to defend Elle, but the fact is - at this point - not a single dissenter exists.
For starters, Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a video game studio whose assault we see in the very first scene, is the kind of startlingly confident performance that leaves the audience disarmed and breathless. She is at times alienating and corrosive, at others completely endearing, but either way it’s in equal measure and with great force. And to begin to dip our toes into a discussion of gender, Elle is also wonderfully complex, without the complexity working merely as a smokescreen to hide familiar and problematic representations of women and sexual politics. While it sits at a slightly-longer-than-comfortable run time of 135 minutes, Verhoeven is an experienced Hollywood entertainer, and it was perversely the most enjoyable 135 minutes I experienced the whole festival. I snuck a glance at my watch during Everybody Wants Some! Not so with Elle. Although of course I could be making some great assumptions about Elle’s universal acclaim – were you as charmed as I was?
Doug Dillaman: Charmed is a bit genteel of a term to describe my reaction, but I was captivated (although I wondered if a more concerted adaptation effort from the source novel could have further streamlined some of its more meandering threads). I did find myself curious about its formal characteristics: while Verhoeven’s basic instinct (sorry) for manipulating audiences is most certainly intact - the jolts across the Civic balcony were the most gloriously palpable mass reactions since 2004’s Hidden that I’ve experienced - Elle betrays little formal trace of the man who made Starship Troopers, Robocop, and Showgirls. He’s traded comic-book glossiness for a drab palate (lensed by A Prophet DOP Stéphane Fontaine, but to much more purposeful effect here) and an unfussy sense of composition and frame. (Apparently, on the back of his poorly-regarded film-school collaboration Tricked, he used that film’s stratagem of two-camera shooting, which accounts for some otherwise inexplicable frames.)
I think with the character of Michèle, he’s creating a Rorschach blot, and you can’t begin to interpret that blot without the plain background. If Verhoeven’s directorial strategy can be summed up, it’s 'get the hell out of the way and let Huppert do her thing'. Which is a wise move. No screenwriter or director could get, say, the reaction that Huppert gives when (trying to elide a spoiler here) she discovers she won’t be meeting her father after all. Elle was originally supposed to be an American production, which begs the question: what actress in America could have possibly made this film work? Julia Roberts? (To be fair, her performance in the otherwise-dismal remake of The Secret In Our Eyes argues for the possibility.) And if the success of this incredibly risky film rests on Isabelle Huppert’s shoulders, how much credit should one give Verhoeven?
If Verhoeven’s directorial strategy can be summed up, it’s 'get the hell out of the way and let Huppert do her thing'
EW: You’re right, this is definitely Huppert’s film, and Verhoeven doesn’t always appear to be working exceptionally hard elsewhere (the bland aesthetic, the unimaginative adaptation of the source material). But not every director is an auteur like Hitchcock or Fellini, and when they aren’t, you can’t downplay their role or impact. The ability to identify potential, bring the necessary elements and people together and enable them to shine is less glamorous than, say, Wes Anderson’s totally controlled universe, but to my mind it’s no less impressive. After all, Verhoeven enabled Huppert’s performance, she does not shine despite him. I think you can actually credit Verhoeven with this restraint – definitely not a term you would usually associate with him!
There is actually some nice mirroring here between Huppert and Verhoeven’s working relationship and the narrative; the agency that Huppert has is doubled by Michèle’s agency. While she's not the clichéd assertive, militaristic revenge babe, neither is she shallowly summed up as 'victim'. By trying to sensitively respect the trauma that a female character has gone through, some films neglect to give them depth beyond that characterisation. In Elle Michèle even actively resists being defined as victim. After the assault she cleans up, throws her clothes in the bin, takes a bath, and continues on. Later she is matter-of-fact in the way she first reveals the incident to her friends at a restaurant: “I suppose I was raped.” Her cool reaction may not be that realistic, sure, but it’s a relief from usual victim characterisations. There is much else in this film that isn’t realistic either, and Huppert has gone so far as to call it a fairytale.
While she's not the clichéd assertive, militaristic revenge babe, neither is she shallowly summed up as 'victim'. By trying to sensitively respect the trauma that a female character has gone through, some films neglect to give them depth beyond that characterisation.
I think Verhoeven can also be credited for the shifts between comedy and trauma (crucially the two are never mixed together). Only a very skilled hand could toe this line without creating something incredibly offensive. There were moments where I was comfortably in fits of laughter, and others where I was suppressing it (while even judging those around me who were) – an uneasy mix but also an impressive one. I wonder to what extent Verhoeven was purposefully, and somewhat cruelly, playing with the audience. How much was he making them question the pleasure that they got out of the film? I certainly know that my male friends especially were initially very reluctant to admit to me how much they enjoyed it.
DD: I am probably not the most woke male to ask, being a regular of the 24-Hour Movie Marathon and having enjoyed more than my share of ethically-dubious sleaze. But I certainly didn't feel like Verhoeven - who, I should be clear, I don’t consider lazy in his work ethic so much as sensibly appropriate in his choices - was asking the audience to partake in pleasure in the rape scenes, nudity notwithstanding. (Showgirls is far more problematic/challenging in that regard). And also, despite validly owning the title 'rape comedy; on one level, the rape itself is never (to my recollection) played for laughs, which separates this from e.g. something ethically indefensible like Bertrand Blier’s Going Places. Nor did it feel especially titillating, or implicating of the voyeuristic gaze. Maybe that’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Brian DePalma lately, but that’s a guy that combines the lurid and disturbing in purposeful ways that are far more troubling than anything on display here.
Audience can, of course, make a difference - we were at different screenings, and I didn’t notice any laughs that I found disquieting. But I did find myself asking a variant of your question: what did Verhoeven want people to take away from this film? The title (changed, wisely, from Philippe Djian’s source novel Oh….) implies something universal, generic - or generalisable, at least - about the character ('Elle' is French for She or Her). And her early choice not to report the rape at first could be read as a comment on a more general futility of reporting the crime and the cruelty of the system. But her character is so highly specific - I’m trying to talk around her backstory here - that the choice of the generic pronoun Elle is harder to reconcile. Is Verhoeven (and/or Djian and/or screenwriter David Birke) asking us to take something generalisable about women from Huppert’s story - which would make the later plot twists a bit harder to swallow - or is the title simply a commentary on the unknowability of anyone? (Which would tie nicely with other plot revelations.) Or maybe you have other ideas?
EW: I am terrible at reading signs and symbols and subtext (which makes my enjoyment of this film, a psychoanalyst’s dream, particularly impressive), but if we go back to Huppert’s comment on the film being a sort of fairytale, then we can probably assume that some kind of push for universality was intentional. A fantastical story, unrealistic characters, but supposedly speaking to something in all of us. Or rather, something in us ladies. And to me, it’s a problem if it is attempting to speak to women rather than everyone (or no one). I’m tired of films assuming that they can speak to women as a whole. Even when positive - “Listen ladies! You are beautiful! You are strong!” - it’s still a ridiculous proposition. And this is before even starting to consider intersectional feminism! I’m sure many would be offended by the notion that Michèle’s chic, euro-luxury life is relatable. Elle probably isn’t claiming to be universal on that front, but it is still a tired phenomenon and one that has heightened sensitivity in this, our year of Hillary. I’m happy with saying that Elle isn’t anti-feminist and leaving it at that.
Although in the most general sense possible, the many, and varied, flaws that every character displayed will always invite relatability - and you really have to admire the French for not caring whether you like them or not, in life or in art. But the flaws are pushed to almost comical proportions. Every single male character, in particular, was composed of an especially potent mix of the pitiful and monstrous, be it her massive, cuckolded son, or her creatively insecure ex-husband with his own history of violence. What are the implications of presenting a universe in which all men are destructive dopes? And how is this complicated when you consider that Michèle is, for many reasons, one of the most reprehensible characters of all?
DD: Well, look back at Verhoeven’s work and you'll find a preoccupation with ideological disease. Both Starship Troopers and Robocop are about controlling systems that are rotten from the inside. (To say nothing about the less allegorical WWII-era Black Book, amongst others.) So in Elle, toxic masculinity is just as controlling of a preoccupation as militaristic totalitarianism in Starship Troopers, and the fact there isn’t a sympathetic presentation of masculinity isn’t a failure of realistic character development but a strongly considered point of view. The nice guy, the weak guy, the dumb guy, the strong guy, whoever they are: they all share the same disease, and none can be trusted. In the end, the only safe place is a feminine one (not that Elle is an uncomplicated celebration of femininity: putting aside Michèle’s complexity for a moment, we have her son-in-law’s doggedly-septic girlfriend, and the devout Christian wife across the street, whose final line of dialogue puts a potent twist in a character who - until that moment - verges uncomfortably close to stereotype). Having said that, I don’t think it’s fair to read Elle as a didactic fit of mansplaining to women why men are bad; if anything, it’s more apt to be explaining to men why they’re bad.
The fact there isn’t a sympathetic presentation of masculinity isn’t a failure of realistic character development but a strongly considered point of view.
Michèle’s own history is poisoned by a particularly malignant masculine influence from an early age. In this context, her apparently nonchalant response at the beginning of the film seems not just explicable but inevitable to someone who has reason to be so deeply cynical. And if, as you suggest, her own behaviour is especially reprehensible (a notion that I think is highly related to how you interpret her choices in the third act, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), to what extent is that an indictment of the forces that shaped her? What makes Elle sing is that these questions are clearly present, but - just like the psychological subtext and symbolism you mention (the cat!) - their contemplation isn’t necessary to appreciate the film. As in Verhoeven’s best work, the plot rests atop the symbolic and thematic world, but functions in a way that doesn’t need to be unpacked for superficial engagement. I almost typed 'enjoyment' instead of 'engagement', and then I felt guilty doing so. I think Verhoeven would be pleased by that.