This article is in honor of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which you should totally see and can buy ticket for here.
Elle is an uncomfortable watch, to say the least. It opens with an explicit sexual assault, which it flashes back to a number of times for a number of reasons, and it isn’t even the only instance of such assault in the film. Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, a divorcée and strong-headed videogame entrepreneur, is the main narrative subject of Verhoeven’s exploration into rape culture and the trauma of assault victims, but it’s a narrative so oblique and so willfully complicated that it can be hard to know how to feel about it.
That isn’t a feeling uncommon to seasoned Verhoeven fans. The likes of Starship Troopers and Robocop ride a fine line between empowerment and violent depravity, and Elle fits under the same broad umbrella, albeit with a wildly different scope. It’s undoubtedly a film told through a male lens, adopting the parlance of the kind of rape-revenge movie often told by men (focusing more on moralistic physical retribution than on any kind of lasting social or psychological trauma) but Verhoeven turns this narrative inside out, beginning from a place where psychological trauma is the norm and violence is an ever-present facet.
Michèle is the daughter of a serial killer, and is often perceived as a killer herself. The people around her refuse to empathize with her. This is their default setting, and it hardens Michèle to the point of repression. When she’s violated by a masked assailant, the opportunity for violent emotional outbursts presents itself on several occasions, but Voerhoeven keeps tossing wrenches into the gears of what would otherwise be a neat, predictable machine. He uses the taunts of her disgruntled game developer employees as a red herring, and their rendering of her violation at the hands of a digital demon isn’t so much offensive to her as it is a potential piece of evidence. The reality of a man with a grudge using rape as a means to punish is more “easily digestible” than the idea of a friendly façade hiding monstrous underpinnings, but Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from the psychosexual, going so far as to focus on assault as roleplay.
The central complication for Michèle once she discovers her attacker’s identity isn’t so much how to exact revenge, but whether she wants to at all. Upon discovering her enjoyment of the forbidden, the violent, even the depraved, she attempts to seduce him into seducing her, demanding to be violated consensually. This is, in and of itself, a method of redeeming power within the dynamic, one where the assailant’s modus operandi is dependent solely on non-consent. It’s hardly what he expects, nor what the audience expects, which is part of why it’s so damn disorienting.
Shortly after discovering the identity of her rapist, the first truly complicated scene arises, when he shows tenderness towards her and bandages up her injury. Up until that point, both Michèle and the audience have been primed to view her assault as a means of punishment. While such can be the case in terms of how we as a society view sexual assault, the focus here is less on the nature of the assault itself (it’s a clear, indisputable, violent violation of a defenseless woman) and more on the complicated nature of consent when introduced to a fetished power dynamic. These two things are, obviously, markedly different – consent in and of itself is a largely clear cut concept – but Verhoeven blurs the hard line that exists between them in order to make us examine each more closely.
During a pivotal flashback to the initial assault, Michèle imagines grabbing the blue vase off her table and smashing her assailant’s head in. It gives credence to the rape-revenge narrative, unearthing both her mindset and her intention as she attempts to arm herself, but it later augments the bandaging scene as a key point of subversion. Not only is her assailant acting kindly towards her, kneeling down as he heals a wound on her inner thigh, almost subservient, but the blue vase from her flashback is framed dead-center, right in between them. The perfect opportunity for Michèle to grab it and carry out her own fantasy of exacting revenge on the man who turned her world upside down, and the perfect release-valve for an audience looking to have their morality rewarded. The narratively “correct” option, a punishment for the obvious evil we were exposed to from the film’s very opening.
But she doesn’t grab the vase. And she doesn’t bash his head in. Instead, she begins a complicated affair with him, torn between her hatred for him and her desire to be objectified within an agreed-upon context.
It’s that context that then becomes the point of contention, slowly working its way in to the story and replacing the more black-and-white notions of sexual assault, i.e. rape is wrong, but what happens when you have a rape-like scenario between two people who have differing approaches to consent? The film entraps Michèle, between her mother, her ex husband, her lover, her best friend and her employees, creating the feeling of constant pressure felt by women at every turn, but it performs the strange feat of turning consent itself into a weapon when turned against her assailant. His arousal is entirely dependent on her autonomy. Even when she’s the victim of violence, its the context surrounding that violence that strips him of his power and his sexual prowess.
In essence, she redeems control over the rape-revenge narrative by forcing consent onto her rapist. If that isn’t the most uncomfortable subversion in Verhoeven’s filmography, I’m not sure I want to know what is!