Monday, 6 August 2018
With that out of the way, I will tell you the second thing you need to know about Elle: it is a Paul Verhoeven film. Verhoeven and I go a long way: he directed two of my all time best movies ever nominees, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. More to the point, since he first exposed to world to the talents of Sharon Stone in Total Recall, Verhoeven’s specialty has been movies about strong women: Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Black Book, and now - Elle.
And the third thing you need to know? It is a French speaking movie.
Now to the film itself. Elle follows Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), whom we witness getting raped in her own house by a balaclava wearing burglar at the movie’s opening scene. She doesn’t call the police and hardly tells anyone of the incident, but it greatly affects her.
It’s not like Michèle’s life is all smooth otherwise. She is divorced, she has an affair with her best friend’s partner, her mother threatens to marry her gigolo, her son is tying himself up with a girl that’s exploiting him, and the people at her own company - the company she owns - show her disrespect. Worse, as the film goes along, we learn of a dark family secret from the past that still blemishes things today. Yet Michèle is strong, and while imperfect and often far from ethical, she soldiers through.
Then there is the rape coming on top of all that. Yet the main event in Elle is not that of a woman dealing with being raped, but rather of that woman feeling sympathy and even craving for the rapist. Which turns the movie into a whole new ballgame (and, as per the very first point, makes for a very uncomfortable watch).
I will put it this way. I see it as no fluke that Michèle’s character in the movie is the owner of a video game development company in the thick of developing a horror themed video game with female characters. Everything one is expected to think in a knee-jerk reaction upon hearing of a woman craving her rapist has been said already about video games, particularly Japanese ones with their tendencies to offer scantly clad characters bearing very generous mammaries. Think Bayonetta; or consider Nier:Automata’s 2B. Exploitative!, people say. Chauvinistic! Or are they?
The explanation always offered by the Japanese gamer camp is that, perhaps inconceivably to us Westerners, perhaps it is the case that these women derive their strength from their sexuality? As Elle makes vividly clear, Paul Verhoeven is certainly of that opinion.
And he even dares throw an “all gamers are stupid” comment into his movie.
Hard to watch? Definitely. But Elle is also a movie that does what the vast majority of movie never even bother attempting, which is to change their viewers’ perceptions.
In other words: Paul Verhoeven has done it again. 4 out of 5 crabs to a top notch piece of [controversial] art.