BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Elle (2016)
What’s the funniest rape joke you know? No, c’mon now, don’t look all offended, that’s a provocative start for a provocative film, the welcome return to the theatrical screen of the uncompromising Paul Verhoeven who has been missing in action since 2006’s Second World War drama Black Books. Of course there are perhaps only three crimes seen as more abhorrent that rape, namely pedophilia, murder and UKIP membership, and as a sad aspect of our species existence it is in no way a laughing or joking matter. It is, however, one of the great mysteries of the human condition how we can jest and mock the most horrendous of crimes and incidents, without (and I want to be quite explicit here) celebrating the crime, without endorsing the activity, and also crucially without denigrating or belittling the victims of such a horrific and disturbing assault. This is the posture of Elle, Verhoeven’s new French language film, starring the glorious Isabelle Huppert in the titular role as a woman suffering the aftermath of a horrendous and brutal sexual assault. Her bourgeois Parisian life is already in various states of turmoil, as the CEO of a successful video-game publisher her company is facing a looming deadline for their latest AAA product. Her son has become engaged to a distasteful bohemian whom Elle suspects is using for financial leverage, seeking out expensive accommodation in successful and trendy arrondissement’s despite their income and ambition not matching their commitments. Finally, although relations remain friendly and cordial with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) he has recently hooked up with a partner half her age, an event which may or may not have driven her into a sexual affair with her best friend Anna’s (Anne Cogninsy) husband Robert (Christian Berkel) which is now cooling in the dying embers of passion.
Opening with the nauseous assault in the kitchen of Elle’s spacious townhouse the film soon curdles like a diluted giallo, setting up a litany of potential suspects, fermenting from what has been widely marketed as a rape-revenge picture into a coolly detached character study. This is what surprised me most about Elle, it is not a film which is content to simply follow in the wake of the traditional rape-revenge movies which began in the exploitation sewers of the 1970’s, while retaining fidelity to the narrative structure of a cat-and-mouse whodunit, coated with just a light lacquer of film noir. Was Elle’s assailant the surly programmer at her company whom is eager to publicly challenge her authority and question her capacity, or the more reserved young CGI technician who quietly harbors a crush on our heroine and her spirited demeanor? Then there’s her next door neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) with whom she has been exchanging longing glances to the ignorance of his religiously fervent wife, or maybe her ex-husband still retains some misplaced feelings for Elle following their still simmering separation? Alongside these slowly uncoiling mysteries Verhoeven gleefully drapes the film with a sly and dark punches of situational comedy, reveling in the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Elle’s bourgeois privilege and the muted reactions of her friends and acquaintances, with occasional savage punctures of contemporary polite decorum that would make Chris Morris blush like a 18th century debutante on her wedding night.
It is the position of some cultural commentators that the mere representation of an act of violence, sexual or otherwise, is in and of itself an endorsement and I disagree vehemently, and just to be perfectly clear the sexual assault in the film is shot perfunctorily, it is in no way glamourized or sexualized, and is presented as the pathetic, nauseating assault that these crimes always are. No, where the film becomes truly provocative and seems certain to generate a firestorm of furious indignation – something that Verhoeven has been no stranger throughout his career – is Elle’s response to the molestation, oscillating through a spectrum of reactions and plans, which is where the film becomes truly fascinating. Most rape-revenge films in the mould of They Called Her One Eye, Handgun or the notorious I Spit On Your Grave are really quite conservative when you think about them, despite their empowered feminist facade. In all these films a female protagonist is subjected to a horrific sexual assault, spurred on to conduct a cathartic, frequently castrating themed revenge, a reassembly of moral justice and a clear narrative closure which give the audience a simultaneous frisson of the taboo and a satisfying loop of equilibrium restoring justice. Not to state the obvious but the real world doesn’t work that, these crimes are not absolved by a carnage strewn burst of vengeance, for a variety of reasons they are not reported let alone convicted, a shameful incitement of so called rape culture which the film gently impresses through its presentation of various cultural entities – the entertainment media, the church, polite social conventions, familial shame. In this very precarious grey zone Verhoeven really brings the film to life, Elle is not for one second a particularly sympathetic person given her infidelities, the dismissive treatment of members of her family and past and current paramours, while we slowly understand how some dark and unresolved secrets of her psyche and heritage have slowly coalesced into a confident but damaged woman whom is now wrestling with yet another distressing chapter in her life.
When I saw Verhoeven at his Q&A session at the weekend one of the observations that the interviewer excavated was that his films are pregnant with so-called strong, independent women who know exactly what they want in terms of their careers, friendships and sexual interactions, and this film is certainty another addition to this welcome inversion of traditional gender roles and representations. As the suspense plot matures and Elle is cyber-stalked by her aggressor some clever narrative feints occur, keeping her ambitions and longer term goals in a clandestine closet, which ensures that the film remains dramatically and psychologically riveting right until its gruesome and unexpected closure. Huppert proves again why she is one of if not the best actresses in the world, imperceptibly emitting a performance of quiet yet humorous intensity, in a film which is carefully structured around her appearance in every scene and every moment viewed from her perspective. Without a word of dialogue you can sense the in her eyes, while her interior turbulent journey remains mysterious and . As you may guessed this is provocative and challenging film making at its very best, with the feminized cannibal horror Raw which I saw on Monday, Room, Ghostbusters, The Witch and The Neon Demon a couple of months ago 2016 is a fertile year for gender studies at the cinema, timed to perfect coincidence with a presidential candidate whose frequent sexual assaults on women have been self-affirmed, yet somehow has not resulted in an absolute annihilation and exile from the public sphere. If that is so-called ‘locker-room banter’ then let’s not forget that this is ‘banter’ of a 59 year old man, not a ignorant and immature teenager, who boasts about ‘grabbing women by the pussy’ and forcing himself on them, yet still retains the ravenous support from millions of his political peers and supporters. In that shadow Elle stands as a beacon of nuance in reason that burns bright within that patriarchal shadow, one of the most essential and defining films of the year;