The Elle Word
In a week where a judge who asked a woman in a rape trial why she couldn’t just keep her knees together has resigned from the Federal Court of Canada, and in a time when America has a president who routinely degrades women for fun, it seems that ‘Elle’ could not be more prescient. But Paul Verhoeven’s award-winning black comedy does much more than merely shock – it supplies a blueprint for survival.
In a screening of the film at BAFTA the other night the audience was split into booers and applauders. In this month’s Sight & Sound there are, quite fairly, opposing columns for the film, but it felt like the Sensitives VS the Realists. For a generation raised on trigger warnings, safe spaces and peer approval, ‘Elle’ is a bracing rebuttal of conformist opinion that nevertheless has its heart entirely in the right place.
But for me everyone seems to be missing the obvious; ‘Elle’ fits right into a canonical history of noir thrillers going back to the early 1930s, when Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote ‘Before The Fact’ under the pseudonym of Francis Iles. That still-shocking thriller looked at the true nature of victimhood and became the basis of Hitchcock’s bowdlerised film version ‘Suspicion’.
In ‘Elle’ Isabelle Huppert plays a video game company director with a notorious, despised father in jail. When she is raped and beaten, her reaction to the attack and then to those around her gleefully trashes the idea of victimhood and turns it into empowerment – just not in the way you’d expect. When Huppert buys an axe and takes shooting lessons we’re set up for a revenge thriller, not a black comedy.
What follows is both entirely logical to her character and to Verhoeven’s career-long concerns. ‘Elle’ recognises a pulp staple; the incomprehensible resilience that the strong possess and the weak misinterpret or cannot understand. Having said that, writers must always be aware of being misread, and sure enough, plenty of rent-a-critics have stepped up to decry the film, which Verhoeven says (understandably) could never have been made in Hollywood.
What may have shocked them is that ‘Elle’ dares to break away from the ‘Death Wish’ clichés surrounding the aftermath of trauma and dares to place it in context to the other daily assaults the heroine faces from colleagues and family. A clue to Huppert’s character lies in what she does immediately after the attack; she sweeps up. Throughout the film her actions remain unguessable and will provoke argument, but to me it seems clear; she needs to learn how to feel.
Verhoeven is a game-player of long standing. His ‘Starship Troopers’ was hilariously assumed by some to be a right-wing action epic, not a leftist warning. ‘Elle’ will be similarly misinterpreted – that photo, above, is not what you think.