Elle – The story of woman, such that it is. (Film Review)
I’ve had some large scale personal projects this year that have prevented me from reviewing films. But there are a couple of 2016 film experiences I think are important, so I will address a few of them before the year is out.
(Please note! This review contains spoilers)
Our first encounter with Michèle LeBlanc sees her rise from a horrific rape, bathe the blood off her body and order food. It is also the start of an inner civil war for the viewer, a battle for the narrative construct of a woman’s life. Review after review speak of her rising as if nothing happened, the camera hovering over Isabelle Huppert’s supposedly impassioned face, as if hysteria and tears are the only possible response to the event – cementing the implausibility of a woman facing her attack square on. This hysteria idea ignores the fact she rises to prepare herself and order food for her anaemic (still) dependent son whom she is aware is approaching her to ask for money to help with her unborn grandson. Still, is this not how most rapes in the world occur? The woman rises, absorbs the violence of the world around her (in most cases perpetrated by a relative or friend) and continues to care for the dependents in her life. She already knows calling the police won’t work (as do the majority of rape victims) and that any declaration will be looked upon with suspicion. She needs time to think – but her son is coming over, and he needs money.
And so begins the battle for narrative, as Paul Verhoeven, Isabelle Huppert and Phillippe Djian try to speak something into the determined sludgey mess that is our brains and the way we construct woman – or “She.” Consensus is everything; there is no truth. Women are constructed out of an archaic narrative that strives against them. At its lightest, Elle is a story about a woman who uses the scant resources available to her to end a rapists hold over her life, but at its core it is the story of a woman (every woman) misinterpreted and unseen by those around her, engrossed in a perpetual battle for her autonomy and freedom when every word or action will mount as evidence of a case for the contrary. Phillippe Dijian creates a character out of a remarkably lucid observation of the women in his life, and Paul Verhoeven brilliantly leaves his leading actress to direct herself when bringing this character to the large screen. Everything you think you know about women is wrong, says Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Let’s start there, shall we?
Isabelle Huppert is an actress who allows herself to be a blank canvass, but here she is revelatory. Her story is told in her pauses, the movements of her eyes, the way she “deep breaths” her way through life. She sits at the dinner table opposite her son, her face bruised from the rape, and rises to get him a napkin after he spills his dinner over his t-shirt. He has already asked her where the bruise came from, and disbelieved her when she said she fell off her bike. She is grumpy, out of sorts, and irritated that he is allowing himself to be cuckolded by his girlfriend. Finally he asks “What is with you today?” She pauses. It is here that the woman’s world is constructed. She checks her feelings, realises she can’t affect his perspective, and offers him the money. It is this pause, precisely timed, perfectly executed that tells the story of the female perspective. Elle is filled with these pauses, the moods and realisations crossing the eyes like shadows, the fast thinking on the feet as reality collides with narrative over the body of the female at an unimaginable pace. Rather than presenting her usual mask, Isabelle Huppert is remarkably animated, emphasising these moments for the viewer willing to see them., But there lies the rub! What viewer is willing to see them?
This question is cemented into the narrative itself. We think we know the story of Michèle LeBlanc. And yet what is revealed, is that Michèle knows us better than we know ourselves. She makes the comment herself, that her impassioned stare into the camera as an eight year old victim of her father, turned the world against her. What makes Elle such a remarkable film is the way the central message continues to spill out into the audience response. We don’t learn from Elle, we become complicit in the crimes against Michèle. This is a film that understands the audience so well, it watches us, even as we can’t properly see it.
Michèle LeBlanc is no stranger to accusations she is complicit in the crimes committed against her, so it is no surprise that, despite Huppert clearly stating Elle is not about a woman accepting her rapist at Cannes, reviewers have overwhelmingly chosen to interpret it that way. Michèle’s status as a woman struggling with how to deal with the men around her without becoming a victim of them is firmly established when we discover she helped her father to burn evidence after he committed a terrible crime. That she was a child, and that he had just murdered children, didn’t stop the police and everyone else judging her as complicit. It is no surprise then, that she refuses to go to the police when she is raped, and that we presume her to be duplicitous about the crime committed against her now. That most film critics and audiences are too stupid to recognise themselves in this behaviour is also unsurprising.
Neither is it is a surprise that her world is filled with aggressive attempts to take control of situations around her constantly determined by men; She owns a video game design company that sells disturbing games and describes violence in terms such as “feeling the blood on your hands” and “the boner moment.” She sees through everyone around her, and delivers her advice with a scathing divination that is rarely inaccurate. She is separated from her husband (because he hit her) with an agreement that they will date within certain parameters that he pathetically flouts. She sleeps with her best friend (and business partners) sexually aggressive husband and constantly baits and criticises her mother’s blatantly gigolo boyfriend, even as she funds both of them. She shows open disdain for her passive aggressive son’s girlfriend who shamelessly cuckolds him as he throws the relationship in his mother’s face. It doesn’t take us long to realise Michèle is fighting against relentless efforts to belittle her, and that every narrative is controlled and orchestrated by the men in her life. When she is raped, it is just another chapter. Just another extension of societies desire to tell her story in response to a man’s constructed perspective.
Michèle’s response to her rapist is that of every raped woman’s response. Somehow, in some way, she is forced to become complicit. The scathing assault on her strength is delivered with the most power, not by a man, but by another complicit woman. Under the guise of feminine purity, the wife of Michèle’s attacker thanks her for “giving” her husband with the “dark soul,” what he needed. It is this brilliant, terrifying line that promises Michèle the films audience won’t hear her story either. She will continue to be invisible. True to the promise in that line, the bulk of the films critics imagine a Michèle with a Freudian response of desire for her attacker. Precisely what the film accuses the audience of from the start. Michèle revolts with calculating honesty, empowering her best friend and her son in the process. But also, she deals with her attacker. His final moments show her son walking through the house as if he were playing a video game. He sees the villain attacking the woman, searches for his weapon, and turns to strike. Michelle writes and produces video games, just like the one that directed her son. Her control over the narrative here is clear. She has found a way to stop her rapist. In taunting her rapist with going to the police, she provokes the result that was always inevitable. It was always him or her. One of them would end up dead. Battered women know this.
Desire to control the perception of woman, for her to be defined, not by her desires and motivations, but by the way men interpret her actions is the major theme of Elle. It is a beautifully wrought film, not nearly as subtle as we might think, nor as confounding. It is one of the rare films I saw twice in twenty-four hours, so struck was I by the accurate representation of the female perspective – something I rarely see.
Elle is, for me, the standout film of 2016 and one of the best of my film watching life time. If you are brave enough to question yourself and your responses, then see it. If you are not – then, this is not a film for you.