Film review: The woke political commitment of Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’

Nov. 17, 2016, 11:10 p.m.

In a year filled with woke-as-hell films (“Moonlight,” “Lemonade,” “Certain Women,” “Sunset Song,” “Cameraperson”), Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and French actress Isabelle Huppert create their own category: “Elle”-as-hell.

This brutal watch is overwhelming on the first go-around. Study the title: French for “she,” a fierce woman, in a fierce film that refuses to accommodate itself for its uncomfortable audience, starring a complex lead (Huppert) who can never be pinned down to a recognizable Hollywood type. Verhoeven has teamed up with Huppert to redefine the cinematic woman. The 134 minutes pass by like 80 minutes of intellectually thrilling terror.  Even though it’s not a mainstream film by any stretch of the imagination, “Elle” deals with its subject matter (sexual violence, rape, vengeance, the systematic oppression endured by woman) with such novel vividness, that it has no true parallel in the modern cinema.

To prepare yourself for “Elle,” I must warn that this is a film that deals head-on with issues of sexual assault and violence against women. After watching it, read up on some of its critical notices — in Variety, TIME, The New Yorker, Jezebel, The New York Times, etc. Read up on the issues it has brought up, its potential flaws and the way it has been marketed. I won’t rehash the publicity folks’ cliché, buzzy pitches, other than to say that it is truly a shocking, tough watch. Easily the toughest of this year in movies. Is this the right film for you? Read the first paragraphs of a couple of empty-but-informative reviews to get a sense of this.

If you come out frustrated, good. You can’t just rank “Elle,” file it away and move on with your day. To truly engage with this beast, you must think through it. It may seem as though you can’t understand what its ideological position is, what it wants you to come away thinking. Great! That’s the point!

Watch “Elle” for yourself before reading any of the critics’ interpretations. I find it next-to-impossible to critically engage with “Elle” without spoiling pretty much everything about it. Therefore, to you, dear reader, I write the next paragraphs under the assumption that (a) you’ve seen it, and (b) that you’re still trying to work through it. Hell, I’m still trying to work through it. “Elle” doesn’t demand you like it or not. What it does demand is some back-and-forth on the viewer’s part.

* * *

Isabelle Huppert in "Elle", a film by Paul Verhoeven. (Photo: Guy Ferrandis, SBS Productions and Sony Picture Classics).
Isabelle Huppert in “Elle,” a film by Paul Verhoeven. (Photo: Guy Ferrandis, SBS Productions and Sony Picture Classics).

Elle est Michèle. She is played by Isabelle Huppert, a French actress who has worked with nearly all the greats of cinema (Chabrol, Godard, O. Russell, Pialat, Preminger, Losey, Ozon, etc.). She is a video-game executive in charge of creating a violently misogynist game, involving tentacle rape, looting and pillaging. (She knows her audience of gamer boys.) She tries not to be bothered by the shit the male-favored business deals her. Surprisingly controlled in moments where we’d collapse into jeers, yells and stomps, Michèle keeps cool and patient. All the world’s out to get Michèle, whether because of her ambiguous connection to her serial-killer father (did she help him kill their entire block of neighbors simply because a neighbor told him not to make the sign of the cross?), or whether because she leads a video-game company and relishes the position she has over limp-dicked mini-men.

She is also raped in the film’s opening sequence. In a robotic Jeanne Dielman mode, post-assault, Michèle sits silently for a few beats, gets up, sweeps up the shattered glass, has a quiet bubble bath where she washes away the pinkish blob gathering near her vaginal area, orders sushi and is right at work the next day, taking charge on a perverse video game where the male orc hero conquers levels and tentacle-rapes a blonde maiden along the way.

Isabelle Huppert’s performance gives the movie its gravity, but to my knowledge, no one has used adequate language to describe her steel-eyed meanness and hip range. Her Michèle always gawks upon a scene with a permanently serious grimace, sometimes allowed to go up one level to “Bemused,” cracking the occasional Jim-from-TheOffice face to an off-screen camera. (How does she deal with the incompetence around her?) Her best weapon is an unforgettable close-mouthed smirk — a grin with the flash-bomb intensity of the Cheshire Cat. (No wonder she keeps a cat in her house. Like her, the cat is always aloof, uneasily amused, caught between contempt and nihilist bemusement of her surroundings.) She’s good at adapting quickly to whatever social role a woman plays in the modern age — as party hostess, as boss, as sexual partner, as mother. With a quick quiver of her slightly full lip, she can undermine any man who plays their own higher-than-thou role. Think you have sexual prowess? Huppert insults your dick. Fancy your intellectual dominance? Huppert swipes the feet under you and claims top.

Michèle is a victim of a rape — this is a fact — but Huppert defies most past cinematic depictions of such a person’s pathology. She takes on full agency by quietly gathering weapons (pepper-spray, an axe) on the sly, learning how to use a handgun, asking for karate lessons from co-workers. Confronted with modern absurdism, bourgeois boredom, anti-woman violence, sexual tomfoolery and hatred for who she is as a human being, Huppert takes militant action with her own unique strand of womanism.

What causes people to freak out about “Elle” is its tightrope combination of comedy and tragedy, such that the two seemingly chaotically intermingle. It’s partly to do with the dishonest way “Elle” has been sold by critics as “a screwball rape comedy,” or, as Richard Brody of the New Yorker puts it, “as if [“Elle”] were getting away with telling a sexist joke in a speech at a feminist convention.” They recklessly makes it sound like Verhoeven and company treat the subject of rape lightly. Not at all. Verhoeven and his screenwriter David Birke never make us forget the gravity of that shocking opening scene. The sequence plays out several times when microcosmic things (a cat’s meow) trigger Michèle’s memory of the assault. That’s not being dealt lightly with. Verhoeven does, however, crowd this scene with moments of self-contained wry humor (mostly involving the dysfunctional ensemble of idiots and equally no-nonsense women), which hover around the rape scene like the Moon orbits the Earth.

Verhoeven’s aim is far more serious, far more socially committed than these critics give him credit for. In the case of “Elle,” Verhoeven-Huppert-Birke have made a responsible film — part flippant satire, part serious melodrama — in which he scans how rape culture and misogyny have pervaded our Western culture to such a cartoonishly elephantine degree. His sense of tonal control never descends into the chaotic frenzies of his illuminating “Basic Instinct” or “Showgirls,” or his almost irredeemably trashy “Spetters.” With age, Verhoeven has (weirdly enough) dialed down, entering an elegiac late-John Ford mode where he attacks with considerable nuance.

Isabelle Huppert, to whom we must grant co-auteur status, aids him in this regard incredibly. She helps tear down the Hollywood/Western cinema cloyingness that pervades feminine roles — the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Woody Allen heroine who falls silly in love and is let go by the hipster intellectual guy, the Sexed-Up Nympho, ad infinitum. Huppert’s tricky, explosive performance could easily degrade at any instant into facile pathology. But she does it in the service of making a satiric point about an insidious aspect of our modern society: the patriarchal revulsion and deep-seated fear/angst/hatred of the female sex. If Michèle even momentarily lets up her display of power, the men-frenzied forces swarming her vicinity will swarm in, trying to knock her down. Michèle refuses to let this happen. To what extent? To the extent that when she is literally raped, she has to put this aside, as much as she can, and continue her power struggle against the man. It is both an absurd (contrived? Maybe, but that’s the point) show of the shit women have to deal with today, and just one element of the multi-faceted attack Paul Verhoeven attacks on bourgeois Western complacency — the inability to tackle any subject seriously without stepping on many people’s toes.

More than blindly adhering to some social nicety, Huppert’s character actually pushes back against a rape-happy patriarchy by staring it straight in the face. At one point in the film, the rapist returns and he and Michèle recreate the assault. She is in complete control of the entire situation. Her drunk son Patrick is in the room, and she can wake him up at any movement, should she need backup. She refuses this. Instead, she consents to being led down a basement. She consents to looking away at one moment for him to grab her and commence an assault. And she elects to experience an orgasmic pleasure during the rape. Why? To confound the rapist. For an instant, he is perplexed and frightened: “This isn’t what’s supposed to happen…” he mutters. He cannot comprehend that, in this slippery moment, she is dominating him, not the other way around. Firmly in control of a sexual narrative literally forced upon her, Michèle uses methods of reverse psychology to upset the hierarchy between the rapist and the raped. The two of them chat on about his personal life, with a nice middle-class wife and a cushy home, as if they were old pals on holiday. She go-go dances with him at a party. They have wine together. She asks him straight-up, “Did you enjoy it? What did you feel? Why did you do it?” All this is to suggest Michèle’s coldly calculated planning. She is a lioness, waiting and simmering underneath her mane-less surface, fierce, steel-eyed, hungry for a kill but refusing to let it show, crouching in a catlike stance before the inevitable pounce. (And what a pounce it ends up being!)

Michèle’s sexual teasing is not, as Brody thinks, some sick pathological vice or “Gimp” used to jazz up a psycho-thriller. It’s not a sick sexual fetish, as is typical of Paul Verhoeven’s previous works. (Though I’d argue they are far more responsible and committed than most blockbuster films released to mainstream audiences, and that Verhoeven is far more sophisticated than is readily admitted in our culture.) Brody complains that there is no psychological interiority to the character of Michèle beyond the rape. This is his understandable if doomed-to-fail attempt to understand the trappings of what goes on within a woman. The only person who has access to this is Huppert-qua-Michèle. And Michèle gives us a list of things she does not want to be: a housewife, a virginal beauty, a cougar, a faithful partner, an unfaithful home-wrecker. She drops tell-tale signs that hint at what’s going on in her head. A male Pygmalion-like photographer sculpts his nude Galatea to his aesthetic demands, as Huppert (walking across the offices of the cubbies of the mini-men) watches from above. That woman, Huppert thinks? She will never tolerate being in that position. Huppert refuses to be a passive object of sexual desire; she wants to be an active creator of it, its progenitor, its manipulator, its boss. Thus, through negation, we get a clear sense of who Michèle finally is: a complex, unclassifiable Woman.

(Later, when she is captured by a male photographer, in the infamous so-called “Ash Photo” of 10-year-old Michèle standing soot-faced after burning down her papa’s bloodied furniture, it is not of her consent. Once she is captured in photo form, she’s fixed in the eyes of the public as a “psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?” Society then only sees her as the horrid girl who helped her serial killer father murder a host of innocents. The propagandistic image, the simplified image, helps coddle an audience that wants an easily recognizable face to matters. HERE IS THE FACE OF EVIL! they cry, without understanding why. They don’t care about the particularities or the intricacies of the individual — not of a person of color, not of a woman and certainly not of Huppert’s Michèle. Even all her efforts to be maverick and ahead of the patriarchal game crumble when she’s eating at a café and a woman spills her tray of food on Huppert, condemning her and her father in the same breath. These are active and unconscious attempts to undermine a woman of power, by both women and men.)

* * *

Isabelle Huppert stalks her rapist in "Elle", a film by Paul Verhoeven. (Photo: Guy Ferrandis, SBS Productions and Sony Picture Classics).
Isabelle Huppert stalking the rapist in “Elle”, a film by Paul Verhoeven. (Photo: Guy Ferrandis, SBS Productions and Sony Picture Classics).

Part of what’s tricky and exhilarating about “Elle” is determining which parts of it are “universal” and which parts are “fantastical,” or (Brody’s pet phrase) “impossibly exceptional.” Because it’s not either/or. We ask ourselves: Is this supposed to be an intellectually rigorous fantasy about one particular rape victim, or an allegory about a society’s disquieting laxness towards rape culture and the problems between bourgeois, heterosexual couplings? The complex answer is that it’s both. Verhoeven and Huppert are not seriously suggesting that some or even any victims of rape will have a similar reaction to their assault as Michèle here. But they are upending the typical cinematic rape narrative (i.e., that the woman “asks” for it because of her sexual promiscuity.) “Elle,” by offering a woman who doesn’t neatly fit into any known models by which we can judge her, works in the tradition of all thought-provoking satire: enlarging, exaggerating, inflating a character-situation-event, in order to make a larger point about a specific societal malaise. “Elle” oscillates between the universal and the exceptional with lightning-fast waviness — but always, always, with precision. To that extent, it is a much more effective movie than the uncommitted, bratty provocations of “Lobster,” “Witch,” “Hateful Eight” — films that drunkenly aim at a dartboard yards and yards away and that try to hide their drunkenness through perfumes of significance, social import and Artsiness.

“Elle”’s fascinating politics of female-dom extend to Verhoeven’s treatment of the larger cast. Alice Isaaz, a young French starlet, plays Josie, Michèle’s lackadaisical, don’t-give-a-fuck daughter-in-law. Josie bullies Michèle’s young son Vincent around. She shares Michèle’s lack of patience with men. He offers meek, complacent, mealy-mouthed suggestions on how to refurnish their room; she calls him out on his dumb ideas. Imagine Isaaz’s performance as a millennial precursor to Elizabeth Taylor’s hurricane-like Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — a defiant, ballooning presence who minimizes her man with sharp, staccato rejoinders, as if she were a cat-lover talking down to a cloyingly sentimental pup-dog. Even weirder: Michèle usually seems to side with her. The meek millennial son never has a chance with French Liz Taylor; he can’t even take accurate pot-shots from the sidelines to stand any of his ground, as Richard Burton’s quietly rebellious George did in Mike Nichols’ masterpiece.

As is typical of atypical Verhoevenian females, just as Michèle never pushes her son to “be a man,” she also never slut-shames or condemns the open infidelity of Josie. Key example: There’s a moment of situational irony involving Josie, which I won’t spoil (if you’ve made it this far, you know what I’m talking about), which is the best punchline of this year; it won’t be funny to anyone except those willing to allow a lil’ cynicism and black humor in their hearts. During this moment, Michèle looks at Josie, who returns Huppert’s laser gaze (Josie is the only character with the balls to do so), and Michèle can’t help but look at Josie like she’s looking into a mirror. Like Michèle, Josie refuses to play by the rules of what a French lady and mother are supposed to be. Womanly respect dominates this scene. It’s endearingly Hawksian — except, in Verhoeven’s case, the homosocial bonds between men have been replaced by those between women, embarrassingly rare in cinema today.

Evidently, “Elle”’s mixture of comic and horror-filled moods either confuses (as Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” once did) or scares people (as “Bonnie and Clyde” once did). Instead of making an active effort to work through this funky, contaminated challenge-film, they are content with saying that Verhoeven and “Elle” are merely “muddy conspiratorial waters” (see: Richard Brody’s pan in The New Yorker). This will not do with a film as bizarre, soaring and smart as “Elle.” Huppert herself has emphasized this is not a rape fantasy, but a fantasy dealing with rape. “Elle” is a carefully though-out proof, a film that traces themes of contemporary relevance via a delicate negotiating between the ethical and the un-PC. In that sense, it makes little sense to talk of “Elle” in the context of our normal cinematic discourse. It’s anything but. It does not “zing” or “miss,” like mainstream critics want it to. Rather, “Elle” zaps, prods, slaps you across the face and jolts American audiences out of their everyday complacency.

This coming year especially, we need to be more woke than ever. Verhoeven and Huppert’s movie will turn out to be one of the cultural objects that will help us get to that state.

“Elle” opens Friday, November 18th in theaters across the Bay Area, including Menlo Park, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Pleasant Hill and San Rafael. “Elle” will soon open at the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

Login or create an account