The blurred line between games and reality is all the rage at the moment. After all, we have children playing at being politicians, virtual reality still desperately trying to break the market, Black Mirror trying to show us how doomed we really are. There are many who would argue that Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is about the main character, Michèle, and how she deals with a traumatic event. And yet it isn’t just about her. It is about blurred lines – and all the possible connotations of the phrase.
On the face of it, the plot of Elle is very simple. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is violently raped in her home. Instead of calling the police, her reaction is one of calm efficiency. She sweeps up the shattered china, bins her clothes and takes a bath, scooping up the foam and splashing it out of sight when it becomes stained red from the blood coming out from between her legs. Later, her son comes round and she fobs off her bruises as the result of a cycling accident. It is only another day, at a meal with friends and her ex-husband that she reveals, nonchalantly, “I guess I was raped.”
She chooses to seek out her attacker herself, but this isn’t necessarily where the rest of the film takes us. Rather, it studies her and her relationships and her chaotically busy life, with her son having a baby, her affair with her best friend’s husband, keeping her mother in check to stop her marrying her gigolo boyfriend, and a rerelease of the documentary about her imprisoned father. Indeed, the hugely controversial subject matter aside,
this is a film that is extremely French in its execution: A Diner des Cons style mishmash of eccentric characters and black humour.
It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Huppert stepping up to the task of this part, and indeed, many American actresses were purported to have turned it down. Michèle is a successful director of a video game company, has the upper hand with her lover, doles out handouts to her son and her mother, and doesn’t let her male colleagues trample on her. This time, though, she is the victim. But even that isn’t so clear-cut. She isn’t playing the victim that’s for sure. She chooses, rather, to play detective, to play seductress, to play dirty. There are thrilling moments too, when her steely veneer shows some cracks. We feel her fear when she goes home in the evening, unsure if there might already be someone there waiting for her.
As a character study, the others are no less convoluted, but all have one thing in common: the games. It is difficult here to go into too much detail without giving away huge chunks of the plot (the nature, perhaps, of a good film, with an onslaught of twists and turns), but in brief: her son plays at being dad, her mother plays at being a teenager, her neighbour plays at being a devoted husband. On top of this, gender stereotypes are trodden on, ripped up and spewed out in all their possible permutations. It is, after all, Michèle who asks her male colleague to make the female character’s death throes more “orgasmic” in one of the computer games they are working on.
Despite destructions of common gender tropes, and despite an admirable lead by Huppert, there is something undeniably “male” about the film. It is relentlessly violent, horrifying in places. While the film acknowledges that “rape fantasy” does exist, and not necessarily just for men, Elle appears to play out as a rape fantasy from a stereotypically male perspective – which, given the film has a male director, a male screenwriter, a male producer, and is based on a novel by a male author, isn’t wholly implausible.
But perhaps Verhoeven is also calling out this violence. The women are successful, clever, witty and independent, but the men in this film clearly all have a hint of that which makes them so threatening: a physical strength that can rarely be matched by women. The violence in the highly sexualised video games that Michèle oversees is matched by the violence in “reality”. And even the men that don’t live up to the macho stereotype can also be monstrous.
Fantasy, reality and blurred lines aside, this is a compelling film, but the controversy surrounding it isn’t unfounded. While bleakly funny at times, at others it is far from it. Nonetheless challenging stereotypes and pushing boundaries isn’t always a bad thing and, whatever your view, Elle makes for compelling watching – but will unequivocally leave you shaken.
Elle is in UK cinemas 10 March 2017
OK so some French movies can be a bit rambling in that typically French style. But then life is a bit rambling, our highs and lows eventually pale into insignificance in the greater scheme of things and yes life does just go on, so we get it. The alternative is the lived happy ever after ending which provides neat closure but not really realistic as life is invariably not that simple.
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