In this era of maddening rage regarding feminism, I wonder how Elle managed to slip through the clutches of radical feminists. Not only that it also managed to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was premiered for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The possible reason seems to be that Paul Verhoeven decided to shoot the film in Paris rather than USA.
Elle directed by Paul Verhoeven based on Philippe Dijan’s book Oh…. presented a reckless facet of chutzpah perfected by Isabelle Huppert playing the protagonist, Michele who is not only a victim but also an arch-manipulator of every one of the narrative scenarios of her sexual life.
Michele is the dynamic and attractive head cum co-founder of a successful videogame company. The other characters encompassing her in the movie are chaotic and twisted out of proportion. Her father was a mass murderer in jail for almost 20 years. Her mother, Irene, still an extremely lustful woman of 70’s. Michelle remains disturbingly normal and unmoved at their death and funeral. She is mingled in an affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend, Anna and invents devilish ideas of humiliating the young girlfriend of her ex-husband, Richard.
The movie opens with grunts and screams of assault. Michele is beaten and raped in her house by a masked intruder. She does not report the matter to the police due to the traumatic childhood memory of helping her father burn the evidences of his crime and the authorities barging in. The trial of her father is closely followed by the press and the photograph of a half-naked, eleven year old girl with “an empty stare” beside her psychopathic father is all that is stuck in people’s memories. Unwilling to be portrayed as the victim again, Michele trains herself in self defense activities- learns shooting, buys an axe and a lethal pepper spray and makes it a mission to identify her rapist.
The plot of the movie takes an unprecedented turn when Michele’s rapist turns out to be Patrick, the handsome and charming neighbor. In spite of this devastating truth Michele enters into a dangerous sexual contract with her rapist. She extracts her revenge by delving into a horrifying experiment with her sexuality. Throughout the movie she lives with an eerie sense of detachment and denial; vehemently refusing to be the victim. The audience cannot find a single scene where she lets go of her poise and professional attitude except the only outburst she expresses when her idea is questioned by a subordinate at her workplace. She instigates Patrick into a second encounter. However, this time it happens with her permission and on her command. The leash of control never leaves her hand although Patrick is under the comic illusion that Michele is completely at his mercy. Her consent in these situations makes his satisfaction from violence void and he remains ignorant of this fact until his death in the hands of Vincent, Michele’s son. It is not very clear who calls the shots in these sexual scenarios between them but Michele’s snatching the upper hand in them is quite evident. Michele’s need to feel challenged outweighs her conscience. During a conversation with her best friend, Anna she states, “Shame isn’t strong enough to stop us doing anything at all”. For her it became a quest for the more powerful and aggressive man who could level up to her dark fantasies unflinchingly and forced her to push the limits of her sexuality. There is no verbal evidence of Michele’s consent to the role play; her as the victim and Patrick as the violent assailant who is biologically unable to participate consensual sex. However, due to the element of simulation encased by Michele, the roles are reversed. Patrick arousal comes from her screams and inflicting pain upon her but is horrified when he discovers that Michele welcomes and enjoys the physical torment.
Though the movie ends on a happy note- the mending of the troubled relations in Michele’s life, to the immense surprise of the audience; it leaves behind a contradiction. The clear demarcation between rape and consensual sex becomes blurred. The movie forces its viewers to imagine and explore the darkest human emotions in an audacious yet artistic way. Semantics and ‘isms are teased apart in the movie. In my opinion it can hardly be categorized as a feminist movie. It is what it is; an outrage of a courageous woman against the perpetrators of violence and trauma upon her.
The movie certainly breaks the cliché surrounding rape victims as depicted in books and films. It stands out in contrast with even the progressive films made in the rape genre in India; Lajja, Matrubhoomi, Damini or Pink. A common story strings the films of rape genre together; a woman harassed or raped, ostracized by family and society but eventually acquiring justice for herself or the victim. In Elle that whole aftermath is contradicted by Michele who is no doubt shaken by the experience but does not allow it to unhinge her accomplished life or her mind. She uses her rapist to her own advantage, gaining pleasure from the sexual power play and lets him bask in the delusion of him as the stronger one and in-charge of the contract. It is truly comical the way he is stripped of power in the hands of his victim.
Isabelle Huppert gave a very convincing performance as Michele-a strong, confident woman in command of every aspect of her life and the people who are part of it. Paul Verhoeven paid special attention to the intimate scenes of the movie which were explicit but not gruesome. The movie is a very important work as it portrays the reality that rape victims carry multitude of experiences and go through fundamental dichotomies. It mocks the practice of uniformity and confinement of all individual cases into an airtight compartment.
In light of the ongoing wave of eve-teasing and sexual abuse in India, Elle broadens the arena of revenge and outrage against perverts and rapists. The initial reaction to most sexual harassment cases in India is suppressing them and throttling the victims because not only charity but allowance of crime also begins at home. Elle challenges and refutes the notion of victimhood and the hypocritical concept of chastity i.e. the presumption that victims, irrespective of gender, are stripped of dignity when they are sexually abused or assaulted. The film is a major initiative and makes the audience examine the dystopian paradoxes within the society and their selves.
– Sruti Purkait