Paul Verhoeven’s begins his latest film, Elle, in a daring fashion: Michèle Lablanc (Isabelle Huppert) screams in what nearly sounds like ecstasy as her impassive cat watches. After a beat, the scene cuts to a graphic scene, half blocked visually by the door frame, where a man in a ski mask is forcing himself on our protagonist.
She’s being raped.
This is a controversial moment that will have many immediately squirm to walk out on this film. Rape is not an easy trope to depict on screen nowadays, and for many people, it’s understandably one that is unwatchable. However, it’s a scene that is so crucial to the anatomy of Verhoeven’s film, because Michèle Lablanc isn’t just your average French woman.
She’s a psychopath.
Comparable to Huppert’s other film that’s currently playing in the US, Things to Come, her character in Elle is a tricky one to tackle. Unlike Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (another popular female psychopath on film), there’s no twist to shock the audience with her dark monstrosity. Huppert delicately fabricates her character, coldly playing Michèle in a way whereas the audience, you’re unsure of her actions. It’s in our human nature to sympathize with the rape victim, so when she forces one of her employees to display his genitals to her, we want to believe it’s because she’s terrified he is her perpetrator, not because she has ulterior, sinister motivations.
However, it’s scenes like when she’s peeping over at her neighbor through binoculars to masturbate that give us pause. The sensual moment is over as soon as it begins and is void of all sexual heat. As she wipes her hands with a tissue and tosses it in the trash, it becomes clear this is just another check off her list of things to do. The scene is empty and unnerving, but it’s also there to let the audience know Michèle has agency. She’s in control of her body and her desires, potentially perverted as they may be.
Elle depicts a film where the females have the upper hand, and the men are worthless. She refuses to speak to her monster of a father, a mass murderer who rots in jail. Her rapist, revealed about an hour into the film, falls into her alluring black widow’s nest, as they begin a twisted of sub-dom relationship. Her son is pushed around constantly by his girlfriend, the equivalent to good-looking furniture. Her ex-husband, her best friend’s husband, her mother’s new boyfriend, her male employees – none of these men really have more than one dimension in the film. So while the film is following a psychopathic woman, it’s also depicting men as entirely useless creatures, only really good for sexual release, or worse, death. Even the film’s official poster gives us a clue – that of Michèle looking at her cat. This same look reoccurs in the film, but towards her rapist. He is nothing but an animal to her, like the ones her father killed in his bloody rampage.
To recall the film’s opening, after Michèle has been raped, the audience is left uncomfortably watching her pick up the broken glass that fell on the dining room floor, as if the incident had absolutely no effect. On first watch, this scene is a tragic depiction of rape culture: Michèle doesn’t call the cops, and instead pushes through her day pretending the incident didn’t occur, suppressing her emotions. However, as the movie unfolds, the scene morphs, churning her actions. Michèle is always autonomous of her actions, including her own rape, which illustrates the very perverse nature of her character. With Elle, Verhoeven creates an interesting depiction of the female psychopath and gives audiences a female monster on the level of Hannibal Lecter, as charming as she is egotistical and cunning. Rest assured, this is Huppert’s film, and what a film it is to behold.
Categories: New Releases