During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day. Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare. Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit. This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.
The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris. In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day. That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it. She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.” This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge. Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.
The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either. The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study. Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film. She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences. She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé. She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards. One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.
This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems. There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been. It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange. It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior. Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.
Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood. Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills. Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face. I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe. I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around. I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.