Elle makes for strange viewing. The UK trailer for the French film, directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, made it seem like I was in for a tense revenge story featuring a middle-aged woman’s rampage. Instead, I was treated to a fantastic character study of a pragmatic, uneven woman’s life following a terrible event. Elle, French for ‘She’ or ‘Her’ is perhaps the most controversially brilliant portrayal of flawed morality and pragmatism I’ve ever witnessed.
Without spoiling anything, the brutal rape that occurs at the start of the film isn’t the first awful thing to happen to Michele. Her reaction is frustrating at first, watching the character played by Isabella Huppert sweep up broken ornaments, get in the bath (blood soaking the bubbles all the while) and then get on with things. You want to scream at her “Why not report it!?” – But Elle’s brilliance is that instead, we see what happens when the tough CEO of a video game company, which itself produces violently sexualised games, is violated. She feels fear, sure, but she carries on.
Michele as a character would be the villain in any other film. She’s cold, takes what she wants in life and is intensely judgemental and frequently snipes at her loved ones. In Elle, she’s the heroine – a woman moving forward from a traumatic event, trying to find who it was that committed the act but not letting it get in the way. It’s also hilarious – with lots of laugh out loud moments you’d never expect. At a restaurant, she informs her friends in a matter of fact manner that she’s just been raped. One of her friends turns to the waiter who has brought champagne to the table and says: “You might want to wait before popping that.”
Throughout the film, Michele tries to narrow down who it was that raped her while also managing her family, which she mainly does financially as she doesn’t really connect with her son or mother. She doesn’t shy away from more sex, refuting the victim role usually assigned to violated women in cinema. Instead, she embraces her sexuality in a few frank displays British audience’s might be shocked by. Masturbating next to a window while she spies on her handsome neighbour is just one example of this.
As we go through the film which is, make no mistake, full of tension, we as the audience want Michele to achieve justice. However, the film challenges you back, asking: are any of us really sure how we’d react? Sex, violence and our attitudes are all linked and some people are fraught with darkness already. Even when we find out who her rapist was, you’re ultimately left with a feeling of perverse confusion. In a world of cinema that is so desperate to provide bloody justice and right and wrong, this is a unique, powerful film. Shades of grey, without the terrible writing.
Elle flipped my expectation on its head, and resulted in a terrific character study of grey morality and black comedy.