March 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
Paul Verhoeven, best known for Hollywood action films, seems an unlikely director for this French arthouse movie. He excels, not just because of his manifest skills, but because of the real auteur at work here: Isabelle Huppert, its star in a part she had determinedly wanted before Hollywood turned down the project and it came back to France, where it had originated in a novel. Thankfully, this is a very French film; funny, playful yet serious.
Previous Huppert roles have shown us women variously endowed with character and courage, imperious and even ruthless, without sentimentality. In Elle she has all of these traits. As Michèle Leblanc she is fearless, a woman who calls the shots, who takes the initiative with men, who is a clever businesswoman, co-owner and CEO of a computer-games company largely staffed by men. Regardless of this power, and all the more because of its affront to masculine vanity, she remains subject to male physical dominance, which we encounter even before the first image appears. The film opens with the sounds of vigorous sex behind a dark screen that then reveals a brutal scene of rape. Michèle’s furious resistance to her masked attacker is met with increasing violence. There’s nothing erotic about any of this.
Alone, regaining self-possession after moments of numbness, Michèle sweeps up the smashed debris of the struggle, bins her torn, soiled clothing, lies in the bath then orders a takeaway. We see her having a medical check-up but she doesn’t contact the police; instead, she buys a rather dainty axe and puts it under her pillow. In the ensuing tumble of events and disclosures, Michèle’s behaviour makes perfect sense, as much sense as you’ll find in a film so provocative, so richly full of contradiction and perversity as this one.
Michèle is clearly bent on refusing victimhood. She feels vulnerable, checking locks, but she also seems to be waiting for the rapist’s return. Mentally, she reruns the rape scene, eventually making it a fight she’s able to win.
First she must identify him. We watch her detective work, with all the men around her lined up as suspects: Richard, her ex; her lover; resentful employees; the man across the street whom she eyes lustfully through binoculars. Suspicion, it turns out, is an alibi for more than one kind of vengeance. Richard, caught up in a minor axe-wielding incident, takes this and further offences lightly, proving to be a devoted ex-husband and an engaging exception among the film’s male fauna. Despite mutual jealousies, he and Michèle are almost best friends. Yet in a friendly moment, seemingly without rancour, comes the following dialogue:
She – You left me.
He – You threw me out.
She – Because you hit me.
Nothing is rational, but there’s an abundance of logic, perhaps too much to be manageably helpful. Isn’t that the way things often are?
Once I think about it, vengeful, controlling Michèle strikes me as the counterpart to the stoical Nathalie of Huppert’s last film released here, Things to Come. The latter is shot mostly in broad daylight, whereas Elle moves from interior to darkened interior and wintry evening streets. Both Michèle and Nathalie are at the centre of a family group. Nathalie’s (the more conventional) is rapidly undone by her husband’s infidelity and rejection, while Michèle’s messy, misshapen family web persists in clinging to her, and this makes Elle more of an ensemble piece (something French cinema is particularly good at: the light, sharp comedies of Agnès Jaoui or Arnaud Desplechin’s dramas of family cruelty are examples). Both protagonists have a mother obsessed with her looks and unable to accept ageing. Natalie’s is a narcissist, Michèle’s a grotesque and never without a gigolo.
Nothing is natural, but some things are lethally harmful. The one family member who will always be there, albeit behind bars, is Michèle’s hated father, a peculiarly Catholic psychopath. Because of him she is still pursued by the guilt and shame of a very public childhood, when the yellow press reviled her as complicit in his crimes. This might explain the hints of masochism beneath her need for control. Or it might not. Nothing is fixed, not just the terms of sexual behaviour but the emotional bonds entailed in intimacy, friendship and family. It seems there’s room for escape from what the past might dictate. A cheering suggestion, perversely optimistic though it is, given the context.
Vincent, Michèle’s son, so lacking in his parents’ talent for success, is in fact the quasi-son of her business partner and real best friend, Anna, who breastfed him in hospital (no milk, or maybe just no urge on Michèle’s part) after her own child’s still-birth, bonding with him forever. He himself has a quasi-son, an infant he insists on claiming as his despite appearances to the contrary. Michèle tries to reason with him over this delusion, but at one point she announces, to her own puzzlement: ‘I’m a grandmother.’
Ambivalence bedevils her. As for that putative touch of masochism and the guilt at its source, Catholicism features as more than a backdrop. One of Elle’s classic moments is a Christmas Eve dinner party where Michèle brings together family, friends and enemies. It promises to be fun, especially with midnight mass on the telly at one guest’s request. Classic in the sense of the dinner party trope deployed in both Chabrol (with whom Huppert made seven films), who was rarely playful, and Buñuel, who hovers both playfully and sardonically over the whole of this film. Both directors had the Bourgeoisie in their sights. Elle does too, and it’s not oblivious to the Patriarchy. What it says about the objectification of women is sometimes playfully conveyed, more often with passing shock effect, as in the unpleasant equivalence noted between a live woman modelling for a photographer and the synthetic figure to be derived from her in a computer game, or as in Michèle’s final tryst with her lover.
No one acts with ethics or consequences in mind, only needs and desires. There are no innocents, well perhaps Vincent and that baby, or even Anna, about whom we know little, only that she’s Michèle’s good object.
In Michèle’s search for vengeance she’s led astray by desire, succumbs to ambivalence, then takes the biggest risk of all. All’s well that ends well, but what a rocky road to get there, what catharsis, what relief.
Elle really does end well, in the most satisfying way, the whole carefully patterned to contain unruliness while giving it free rein. The director should be given his due, and the writer, and most of all Huppert’s subtle acting, which combines inscrutability with depth and mischief with a kind of steely charm.
And, by the way, at no point does the film remind us that its main character is in her 60s, or even that she’s an ‘older woman’; in fact this is quite deliberately blurred without Huppert being made over to look younger. Of course, her face can shift from radiant to faded and a little crumpled, which is how things go after a certain age. She is never ‘past it’, because she’s fully alive.
Elle made me think of Angela Carter’s Sadeian Woman and its moral lessons.