The Great Debate: ELLE

Two writers go head-to-head on Paul Verhoeven's latest film. Only you can decide who wins.

Welcome to The Great Debate, a new feature on Birth.Movies.Death. in which two writers argue the relative merits of a particularly divisive film. We'll talk upcoming new releases and occasionally a polemical rep title or two, and we'll have guest writers who feel strongly about each film pop in to make their impassioned opinions heard. 

Paul Verhoeven's Elle is the perfect film to kick off this new endeavor, a movie that has audience members rehashing plot points in heated contention the moment they exit the theater into the lobby. You should have heard some of the arguments after the Fantastic Fest screening of Elle - people are fired up about this movie. 

Stepping up to the podium today are Alamo Drafthouse, Drafthouse Films and Fantastic Fest founder Tim League and Rotten Tomatoes critic and Online Film Critics Society member Candice Frederick. Tim is coming out of BMD writing retirement to defend this film, his favorite out of Fantastic Fest, and Candice - who has written for Birth.Movies.Death. magazine, writes online at ReelTalk and is a co-host of Cinema in Noir podcast - was eager to present her problems with the sexploitation thriller. 

Important! The Great Debate is intended as a forum for those who have seen the films discussed herein. In other words: here there be spoilers. And Tim and Candice aren't the only two whose opinions matter here. After you've seen Elle - again, after! - we want you to make your voice heard in the comments with your own reviews, as well as by voting in the below poll. A week from today, we'll announce the results: is Elle BMD Reader Certified? 

Elle is in theaters now. Go see it, so you can weigh in with Tim and Candice! It opens at the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn on Friday and has screenings at other theaters across the country.

Take it away, Tim and Candice:

Tim League: Elle is not a Feminist Film; It is the Portrait of a Serial Killer


In order to explain a theory about Elle that was circulating in the halls of Fantastic Fest, a theory to which I happen to subscribe, I must alas reveal too much of the plot. So apologies in advance. Our new series The Great Debate, however, is intended for folks to watch movies, read the paired pro and con Great Debate articles and then join the post-movie conversation online on BMD.

Now on to the spoilers...

Elle opens in blackness with only the sound of an aggressive sexual assault. Our protagonist Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is the victim. But unlike any other normal human, after the rape she quietly stands, brushes herself off, orders takeout sushi and carries on with the rest of her day, business as usual. She is not bottling up her emotions, she is not experiencing shame, sadness, guilt or fear. Michele is instead 100% incapable of emotion. You see, Michele is a sociopath. Verhoeven layers in reinforcement of this premise by inserting shots of Michele's cat during the assault. Cats, as has been shown via somewhat legitimate science, are stone-cold sociopaths. Michele’s cat follows trend by disinterestedly observing the trauma with the blasé boredom of a substitute teacher on study hall duty. The research behind cat sociopathy is clearly debatable, the movie's metaphor in this instance, not so much.

Michele runs a successful video game development company, one that specializes in misogynist fantasy games for adolescent boys. Some members of her team resent her strong leadership, and she suspects one of her most vocal detractors might actually be her mysterious masked assailant.

Instead of contacting the police and reporting the crime, however, Michele arms herself with knives and mace, learns how to wield firearms and attempts to discover the identity of the perpetrator on her own. The refusal to contact the police is not about her fears of being viewed as a victim, rather she simply despises the police. 

Turns out that Michele is the daughter of notorious mass murderer Charles Leblanc who was incarcerated forty years ago for the most heinous murder spree in France’s history. Michele's involvement in the grisly crime was insinuated at the time, and the specter of those allegations begins to haunt her again with her father now eligible for parole. Subsequently since childhood, Michele maintains an innate distrust of the police and criminal justice in general. If her assailant is to be found, she will handle it herself and on her own terms.

The theory of her employee as intruder is eventually proven to be a red herring. But soon after that trail runs cold, the rapist returns for a second attack. This time Michele is prepared. She stabs him through the hand, thwarts the assault and rips off the mask to reveal… her mild-mannered neighbor.

What ensues is a strange, disturbed, symbiotic relationship that develops between Michele and her deviant neighbor. Instead of immediate punishment or incarceration, Michele begins to explore a complicated, erotic dominant/submissive relationship with him. Michele was shown to be physically attracted to her neighbor earlier in the film and clearly finds exciting sexual satisfaction from this new game. She plays the submissive victim with whom he fulfills his sexual fantasies while they both derive pleasure. But he is unaware that Michele is playing the long game and is actually the dominant party in their bizarre coupling rituals. Eventually Michele either bores of the relationship or decides to exact retribution (either theory works for me). She devises an intricate cat and mouse scenario to finish the job that begins with another round of their strange foreplay. She coyly threatens to turn him in to the police for being a bad person who has certainly assaulted other women before her. Knowing what we do of her complete disdain for the police and arrest procedures, we know immediately that this is part of their courtship game. The threat is idle but is instead intended to arouse her parter. Her words serve as an invitation for him to storm through her unlocked doors in his signature ski mask and begin another rough session. Little does he know, however, that Michele alerted her son to this “danger,” and he is waiting in the wings to bash in the assailant's skull. Neither her son as “savior" nor her neighbor as “attacker" are let in on the elegant trap that Michele, the “victim," has laid. Her son believes himself to be the white knight and her neighbor wobbles, stands hemorrhaging to face Michele and speak his utterly confused final word… “why?”

And that is the end of this spoiler-laden plot summary.

This is not a film that is making a blanket statement about women or sexual assault. Instead Elle is a very particular portrait of the calm, cold and calculating mind of a sociopath. The traditional interpretation of Elle’s narrative is that Michele has these traits either because she has her father’s serial-killer DNA coursing through her veins or because her emotions were stripped or atrophied after witnessing such traumatic events as a child.

I would like to suggest that there is an even more sinister interpretation of Elle. Consider the possibility that Michele is in fact the serial killer, and that her father merely stumbled upon his daughter’s crimes when he returned from work. In order to protect his beloved daughter, he quickly devised a scheme to cover her tracks and take the blame himself. In this scenario, he strips down his daughter to her underwear to remove her bloody clothes and proceeds to gather all the furniture from the house and burn it in a pile. This isn’t a continuation of his demented crime spree, but a means to burn his daughter’s clothes and the murder weapon, forever hiding the evidence. He was the only witness.

The crux of this theory comes during Michele’s holiday dinner party. After a few glasses of wine, Michele loosens up and awkwardly describes in detail the day of the grisly murders. During her detailed account, she explains that in addition to the dozens of human bodies, there were also six cats, two dogs and a rabbit that were murdered, a detail that was never given to the press and thus never reported. She further explains that despite rumors at the time, she did not accompany her father during the murders but rather she greeted him at home after he was done with the spree. But if she was unaware of the killings until her father was hauled away by the police and the specifics of the canine/feline death were never reported, how would she know the details? The account does not add up. I firmly believe this moment was inserted into the narrative to allow for this possible alternate theory of Michele as the true criminal.

Also, at the bidding of her dying mother, Michele finally agrees to visit her father. The day before she arrives, her father commits suicide. The traditional interpretation is that the father was so ashamed of his past deeds that he cannot bear to see his daughter. My interpretation is that he knows the truth about his daughter and is frightened of her. Rather than face the hardened, adult version of the dead-eyed killer he saw forty years earlier, he takes his own life. At first we feel horrible that Michele has to bear the guilt of her father’s suicide, but when she confronts his corpse, she grins, gloats and mocks his weakness. This is not the reaction of a normal human being. She hates her father, but is it because of his crimes or because of his weakness?

Let’s stop here to review a few key traits of a serial killer as defined by Dr. Robert Hare, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has led research on the subject for over four decades and see how Michele stacks up.

  1. GLIB CHARM — The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. Michele is the absolute embodiment of poise and verbal charm. For a film dealing with such heavy, controversial material, EElle has continued moments of wonderful comedy, largely stemming from Isabelle Huppert’s confident, witty verbal repartee.
  2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH — A grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky. Sociopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings. Michele walks all over every single one of her relationships in the film, her ex-husband, his new girlfriend, her mother, her mother’s lover, her co-workers, her son and most consistently his girlfriend.
  3. NEED FOR STIMULATION or PRONENESS TO BOREDOM — An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Consider Michele’s relationship with her rapist and subsequent flirtations with real danger as their erotic dominant-submissive relationship matures. She also defends her decision to initiate an affair with her best friend’s husband because “she was bored and wanted to fuck."
  4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING — Sociopaths are shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever. Assume for a moment Michele is the killer and recount her performance as she explains the day of the mass murder when she was a child. There is a sly grin beneath the surface of her delivery of the fable she has constructed.
  5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS — The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims. Consider the final cat and mouse sequence with her hapless assailant/lover. After being clubbed to death by her son, he rises and says “why?” He is completely perplexed as to why Michele would have him killed. From his perspective, their dominant/submissive courtship was flourishing. He had no idea that Michele had grown bored of the relationship and was ready to plot his death.
  6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT — A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, cold-hearted, and non-empathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims. There is not a shred of remorse or guilt in Michele at any time in the film. Consider her final exchange with her father after his suicide or her handling of her affair with her best friend’s husband.
  7. SHALLOW AFFECT — Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.
  8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY — A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless. Both 7 and 8 are well exemplified by admitting to never having any feelings towards her son. She confides to always "looking at him as if he were a piece of meat."
  9. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS — Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily. Michele bashes in the front fender of her ex-husband’s car, she inserts a sharp toothpick into an appetizer to lacerate the mouth of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, and she repeatedly threatens her mother that if she decides to marry her gigolo boyfriend, she will in fact kill her. Note that her mother collapses to her death minutes after announcing to the family said matrimony plans…
  10. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR — A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity. Michele is clearly a strong, sexual creature. She masturbates to her neighbor across the street and attempts to seduce him with aggressive footsie at the holiday dinner table. And all this before she initiates a bizarre love affair after he is revealed to be her rapist. She also maintains a casual affair with her best friend’s husband, mainly out of boredom.
  11. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS — A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home. Consider the context that Michele is the serial killer and her father, a good catholic man, does the only thing he can. He creates a diversion, burns all of Michele’s clothes along with all the furniture in the house and takes the fall for his particularly naughty little girl.
  12. IMPULSIVITY — The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless. I’ll repeat the impulsive decisions to plant a toothpick in the appetizer of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend and bash in his front fender when arriving to meet him for dinner, she also shatters her ex-husband’s windshield while he is parked across the street. She is also unable to resist the temptation to flirt with her assailant and follows him into his basement while she is still working out the rules of engagement for their strange and potentially life-threatening relationship.
  13. SHORT-TERM MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS — A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship. Michele is divorced after all.
  14. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY — A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes. Whether she is a serial killer or not, she most certainly orchestrated the death of her neighbor in the finale of the film. The final shots of the film are Michele and her best friend Anne laughing and skipping through the graveyard, a metaphoric finale for Michele’s pride, laughing while once again literally getting away with murder.

Whether or not she is actually a serial killer herself, has sociopathic DNA passed down from her father coursing through her veins or whether the traumatic events of her childhood stunted her emotions forever, one fact remains clear to me: Michele is a sociopath; she ticks all the boxes. Elle is is not a film that is making a blanket statement about women or any traditional woman’s reaction to sexual assault. The film is a very particular portrait of the calm, cold and calculating psyche of a serial-killer.

Michele is not a “feminist” nor is she intended to be emblematic of the new, modern, strong woman leader. Isabelle Huppert herself has been quite adamant that this is not a feminist movie and Michele is not a feminist character in her post-Cannes interviews.

If Elle expresses any stereotype, it is outside of gender. Elle explores the dark, disturbed, dangerous sociopathic tendencies that are apparently shared by as high as one in five successful CEOs regardless of gender. Elle is in fact a beautifully understated horror film, a glimpse into the soul and inner workings of a serial killer’s mind.

I have also heard the criticism that right now is the absolute wrong time to release Elle. With a president-elect who is currently under investigation for rape and has withstood numerous allegations of sexual assault, why do we want to hear a story written and directed by men about how a woman deals with sexual assault? Given my own gender, I am rather uneasy myself tackling this essay and would have passed on the opportunity had I not admired and respected this film so much.

But this rape and its aftermath are merely positioned to set an entry point for the exploration of the sociopath psyche. Michele is a successful business leader who manages to veil her dark tendencies and be a high-functioning member of business and society. Instead of viewing Elle as the embodiment of successful, feminist women and how male-dominated society continues to marginalizes them, I maintain that the right lens is to view Michele as a parallel to Donald Trump himself. We are not meant to empathize with her, we are meant to fear her.

Of course, I am a CEO myself, so there is a one in five chance that I am also a sociopath and this essay is all part of my own covert manipulation. So take this theory with as many grains of salt as your diet requires. Do however, tell your friends about the wonderful, nuanced, challenging, artful and rather frightening film Elle. It is in a close race with Toni Erdmann and La La Land for my favorite film of the year and is France’s submission for the foreign language Oscar. I for one hope this dark horse takes that prize.

Candice Frederick: What Patriarchal Feminism Looks Like

After years of breathless conversations analyzing and interrogating rape culture, calling out misogynists, and calling for support of rape survivors - all culminating with the election of a U.S. president facing sexual assault allegations - it seems weird to embrace a film that not only mitigates but also validates the very act of rape. 

But, that’s just what Elle does, over and over again. Director Paul Verhoeven’s French drama opens with the brutal rape of a female business titan (Isabelle Huppert) in her own home. As violent as the crime is, it becomes uncomfortably erotic once Michèle (Huppert) challenges her assailant to revisit her - this time with her in charge and calling the shots on just how her assailant should rape her. While I suppose Verhoeven, with David Birke’s screenplay, didn’t want to dwell on the character’s victimization (and in some regard, this is a welcome change in the very portrayal of victims onscreen), the fact that she is also skittish about acknowledging her assault at all (or even reporting it to the police) is troubling. Let me be clear: she’s not reluctant because she thinks she won’t be believed, which would be a welcome nod to the reality of rape victims whose stories are unreported or discarded by law enforcement. She’s hesitant to even reveal what happened to her friends because she is more concerned with her revenge and not being seen as a victim. But in so doing, she herself becomes a sort of twisted criminal - assuming the power behind her rape, so that she becomes the perpetuator and not the victim.

We can’t ignore the fact that this film is directed and written by two men. And their patriarchal approach to feminism only highlights the kind of narrative that is dangerous in the era in which we currently live (which lends itself to the staggering number of women who voted for a misogynist bigot over a woman for U.S. president). This idea that feminism can be enforced through a violent, male-induced crime, one designed to weaken women, is not only destructive but supports the staggering number of women who subconsciously believe that their own empowerment can only be granted by a man, even in a brutal act.  

It doesn’t hurt to mention, as well, that Michèle is a hot, single, successful, older woman whom society has likely written off due to her age and lack of a strong male companion. Elle validates this stereotype by presenting Michèle as a complete wench and man-eater. Her son hates her, her ex-husband is more than a little afraid of her and her underlings at the office are downright terrified of her. Oh, and she’s an awful best friend to a woman she doesn’t deserve in her life.  

With this characterization, it almost seems like the film wants us to feel little empathy for Michèle so that her rape lessens in impact. This characterization rationalizes the idea that rape can be cured by a Teflon ego, attitude and a pair of badass shoes. I believe this is what the kids call mansplaining. 

And it’s a shame, because Huppert sells all of this - quite well, actually. She brings very few redeeming qualities to Michèle (outside of her obvious professional success), even after being victimized repeatedly. In fact, she presents her character as an antihero, with an emphasis on “anti.” Verhoeven and Birke are quick to help the audience form a low opinion of her, after a vicious rape scene, by revealing her dark past as a child murderer. So, now the audience is conflicted. Should we feel sorry for her or abhor her? It’s a highly manipulative ploy that asks if a woman can “deserve” rape. Yet Huppert’s spot-on performance embodies the very idea of internalized rage by turning the victim into the villain. Though in this narrative, the victim is never really a victim. She’s just a vehicle of anti-man hate disguised as feminism that incites fear and intimidation in her male counterparts. Huppert is the perfect vessel to highlight a very real and very vile perspective men have, but validating this perspective is enormously problematic.

At a time when reproductive rights and women’s rights are being optioned by men of power, Elle comes as a discomforting response to feminism and women in business. If being a woman of power is vilified so aggressively that we can only see her as a hateful person, that we rejoice when she chooses silence after being raped, how are we not contributing to patriarchal feminism that, for the record, is more about empowering the male gaze than it is about uplifting women? 

Now you've read the arguments, and it's time to make your own voices heard in the very first Great Debate here at Birth.Movies.Death. Are you FOR or AGAINST Paul Verhoeven's Elle?