I am surprised by how much I enjoyed Elle, a statement that is even harder to write given this film's reputation of being labeled a "rape comedy." While I found this film more sad (and a little more messed up), than funny, its dark humor manages to hit an interesting chord that requires the viewer to second guess any and all expectations regarding gender, sex, and society. Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a high-powered business woman, the co-head of a video-gaming company that produces controversial material. She has a screwup son, an ex-husband, an oversexed mother, and a best friend Anna that runs the gaming company with her. At the office and in her personal life, Michele is cool and collected, barely registering anything past a smirk on the emotional scale. When she is raped in her own home, she calmly collects herself, cleans up the mess, and orders takeout. She doesn't call the police, a decision that we learn is years in the making. When she tells her friends about the rape, it's at a restaurant. The scene is both normal and grotesquely surreal; when does one notify friends of a rape? Should cloth napkins be involved? It's one of the many ways we as an audience are left uncomfortable questioning Michele's actions. Michele, who is after all, a victim.
Michele's attitude towards her own rape manages to bypass the two common tropes used in film. She is not a helpless victim, spending the rest of the screen time seeking self-worth and control, and she does not go on a murderous revenge streak. Although the latter is an interesting concept given Michele's extremely troubled family history. While Michele momentarily loses control of her body during her attack, she manages her day to day with a laissez-faire efficiency. She is troubled by what happened to her, and becomes ever more vigilant when her attacker appears to be contacting her with creepy messages, but instead of fear, she becomes the detective to her own mystery. Once she identifies her rapist, her relationship with him becomes even more, shall we say, complicated, since they run in the same social circles.
Even more of our expectations about these characters will be subverted twofold by the end of the film. Director Paul Verhoeven is well known for his societal finger-pointing, which is on full display here. Most of it is thought provoking, as he dissects the layers of upperclass Parisian society in all its sleazy glory. Some of the commentary hits a little too on the nose, like Michele's job being a rare woman of power in a notoriously sexist industry.
The film works because of Isabelle Huppert's performance as Michele. She is not a very likable person by today's standards, but Huppert plays the character and her particular backstory so well it enables the film to explore the more troubling scenarios we witness as the film progresses. It takes a lot of careful setup to make what is to come feel plausible but it works for me. It won't for everyone.
Elle is not a perfect film, but at this moment I can't say whether that's because of my own sensibilities, or the film itself. Probably a bit of both. But it is a film that will stick with you and challenge your expectations for how the most heinous-yet sadly all to common- acts that men perpetrate against women are depicted in art.
Elle opens in Philly theaters today.