Friday, December 2, 2016

Elle Review

I will admit, I was taken aback by it. It's hard enough when a film includes any rape scene at all, to stomach what we are seeing, but typically the audience has had time to settle into their seats. Digest some of their popcorn before that awful feeling creeps into their stomach while they watch such a heinous and unthinkable crime. Paul Verhoeven doesn't deal with typical and the least of his concerns in regards to Elle is how your stomach feels. Opening a film mid-rape feels like a new level of perversion, the ultimate fly on the wall situation in which no sane person would hope to be said fly. It's a shocking and uncomfortable way to start a film, but what follows soon after the assault is perhaps more shocking. It's the way normalcy overwhelms the victim's movements so quickly, as if what just occurred isn't that big of a deal, but thanks to an Oscar worthy performance from Isabelle Huppert, we know that at least some part of her is both physically and emotionally scarred. Like so many rape victims, she buries it. Verhoeven said that he initially pursued an American actress to play the lead but no one would go near the role due to the content, and knowing that, bless Huppert for not only taking it but utilizing the material to perfection. The screenplay is so layered that there is almost too much to try to unpack in one viewing, and it was essential that the right actress lead the way.

Michèle cleans up the broken dishes and throws them away. She takes a bath, and even when blood begins to surface as a result of the attack she merely moves the bubbles around to hide it. She orders takeout. Despite being assaulted in her own home, a place that one should feel safe in rather than vulnerable, the police are never called. Michèle just carries on with life, and continues to despite what becomes clear soon after: the attacker isn't done with her yet. Text messages and other threats that not only make it known the first assault wasn't random, but that he is someone close to her. Close enough to know her current location and exactly what she is wearing. Nevertheless, life goes on, but every window or empty room in Michèle's home feels dangerous and far too accessible.

Elle is a mystery in a sense, but Verhoeven isn't all that interested in that aspect of the storytelling. Initially I thought that the cat and mouse game being played involving unsettling threats from a man in a ski mask would last the duration of the film, that the big final confrontation would reveal the identity of the assailant, but it's a pretty safe assumption that like me, you will guess exactly who it is without too much of a struggle. The film isn't about who, but rather the psychology of the victim, illustrating that there is no standard response the world should expect from someone who goes through something so tragic.

One of the most fascinating themes under Verhoeven's microscope is power and the way different people respond to it, and how gender roles factor into sex. The intercourse shown during the film ranges from horrifically violent to rather mundane, at least in the way Michèle behaves during it, showing little to no interest in her partner beyond the general desire to "get laid". Towards the end of the film after consensual sex with Robert (Christian Berkal), the husband of her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), he compliments her regarding how great it was that she pretended to be a corpse. This is not a reflection of Michèle's libido as we see quite clearly her desires during a scene in which she masturbates while watching the handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom lives across the way, but merely her lackluster response to traditional lovemaking in which the man takes control. At one point she finds herself in a situation that is bound to result in intimacy when that neighbor is inside her home, but when she demonstrates power over the situation and makes it clear what she wants, he's the one to push away and leave.

Those who are familiar with the work of Paul Verhoeven, with films that were initially misunderstood only to garner critical acclaim and find their audience years later like Robocop and Starship Troopers (I know Showgirls is also viewed in this light, but I am yet to see the film), will hopefully understand and appreciate that what might seem controversial on the surface is meant to push buttons and disturb viewers in order to make people think and lead to discussions as to what point he was trying to make as a storyteller. From his examination of power and even the way he illustrates this away from sexual intimacy, like flipping gender roles and having Michèle and Anna run a video game company while all the men in the office report to them, some pleasantly and others with resentment, to the way he presents rape with a sense of honesty that others won't by avoiding cliches that only demonstrate the way the world assumes one copes with such pain. What angers me quite often is when assumptions are made in regards to a crime based on a general observation of behavior from the victim or the accused, that a rape couldn't have occurred because the victim "seemed fine" or that one is guilty because they didn't grieve exactly the way you would imagine, ignoring that people express emotion or bury their sadness in different ways. So many victims of sexual assault will continue to see the person who hurt them, sometimes even romantically. Not all stories end with someone stumbling into a police station in tears, looking to file a report.

Many will be troubled after seeing Elle because they will exit the theater believing it is an apologist's view of sexual assault, that portraying a strong, female lead character who seems to relinquish that strength due to her acceptance and perhaps even what some perceive as enjoyment of the attacks happening to her is problematic. If that's your take, fine, but it's misguided and unfair to the careful construction of this excellent picture from a director who has made a mighty fine living delivering satire that is missed and thus misunderstood. The rape scenes in the film are not erotic or sexy in even the slightest way. It almost physically hurts to watch them, but while sex can be beautiful and violence is ugly, Verhoeven wants to drag the audience into the grey area that is considered taboo to many despite being a rather commonplace fantasy, when those two worlds come together. The result is an engrossing, bizarre, and unique cinematic experience, one of the very best of 2016.


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