Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to keep us from doing anything at all. Believe me.
In Elle, Isabelle Huppert plays a strong-willed business woman who is violently raped in her own home as the movie begins. This has been an incredibly controversial film and it’s obvious to see why. Verhoeven has shown himself in the past to be something of a master at both exploitation and the deconstruction of exploitation and this film handles its subject matter with a shocking frankness that will be disturbing and unsettling to most audience members and certainly was to me. I think it would be a mistake to look at this film and try to extrapolate some sort of larger message about rape or rape victims or even the perpetrators of rape. Many people have attempted to suss out Elle to find what exactly it’s “saying about rape.” But if you believe that this film is making a social statement, you’re in trouble because, viewed through a larger social lens, Elle is, let’s be honest, a morally repugnant film. If it has a message, then that message is odious and disgusting. And response has certainly ranged the entire spectrum, from those who consider it a provocative masterpiece to those who consider it reprehensible trash.
Where do I stand? Well, it’s not so much where I stand on these questions as how I come to the film. The film is quite sexually graphic (and, at over two hours, an experience that is at times quite brutal) and the directions in which the film goes with its characters, which I will not get into in any detail here, very definitely open it up to the charge of being exploitative. I think the main thing that keeps me from agreeing boils down to the person I kind of view as the central creator here. If this film is a masterpiece, it’s absolutely Huppert’s masterpiece, not Verhoeven’s. Verhoeven’s vision is obvious; this film is right in line with his career as an agent provocateur. But it’s harder to feel that unsavory exploitative vibe, once you lock in on the fact that this really is Huppert’s movie. And this is why I think the film is best viewed on a more personal level. If this twisted film is saying something larger about rape or rape culture, it’s repulsive. But I think it isn’t; it’s very clearly, to me anyway, a character study about this one particular woman and her reaction to being raped. The writing crafts a really wonderful, ambiguous character and Huppert knocks it right out of the park and the result is a fascinating, grim portrait of a woman who is already severely damaged before the film even starts, damaged in all sorts of interesting ways, and subsequently locked in total control of herself and her life. I refuse to spoil anything about the character or the plot, but suffice it to say that she never shows fear after the rape. Any other movie about a rape victim would delve deeply into the emotional state of the victim and fear would be an obvious part of that. But Elle isn’t about a rape victim; it’s about THIS rape victim and it refuses to go for any easy emotional answers. Huppert’s character here is not a normal person and is not intended to stand in for a normal person; I think that’s key to understanding the film as a character study and avoiding the pitfall of seeing it as some sort of social document.
But I’ve probably said too much. I think one of the strengths of the film is the philosophical/moral wrestling it evokes. Again, I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot, but this is a film that takes some turns you may not expect and, as a viewer, I was always operating at a consistent low level disturbance. Some scenes are definitely more intensely disturbing or upsetting than others, but the film never really lets up on the atmosphere. Huppert, I’ve talked about; Verhoeven, I’ve talked about – they’re both operating at the top of their respective games. The supporting cast is really good. This film isn’t exactly a mystery or a thriller, but I still won’t spoil the identity of the rapist since it is an answer that comes fairly late in the film, but suffice it to say that the performer who played the rapist is particularly excellent, especially in a couple of key scenes. It’s a grim movie with a relentlessly unlikable main character placed in an even less likable situation. It’s dedicated itself to creating discomfort in its audience and it won’t compromise for a second. You’ll leave the movie thinking about it and struggling with it; you’ll probably do both for quite a while. Is it a flawless film? No. Is it a problematic film, even viewed as a character study and not a larger social document? Absolutely. It will upset you, trouble you, haunt you, anger you, provoke you . . . I don’t know if it’s exactly a masterpiece, but, usual caveats about content aside, it’s a movie so profoundly unsettling, in both thought and emotion, that it simply must be seen. 4 stars.
tl;dr – unflinching character study disturbs & unsettles with its treatment of violence, survival & rape; epic lead performance elevates a troubling film sure to provoke a range of intense reactions. 4 stars.