Because one can only watch so much Poirot, on Sunday night I saw Paul Verhoeven’s award-winner, controversial movie Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert. The film opens with a rape scene; whether the end result is exploitative, empowering, or just Art is a subject of critical debate.
In a New York Times profile of Huppert, Rachel Donadio calls the film “a vehicle for Huppert to deploy everything — everything — in her formidable acting arsenal,” and is overall quite positive. (Huppert’s performance is indeed spectacular.) Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Richard Brody makes the case for the movie’s dreadfulness: “‘Elle’ is no exploration of a woman’s life or psyche but a macho fantasy adorned with the trappings of liberation.”
The luxurious French interiors crossed with sex crossed with violence crossed with great shoes certainly suggest “fantasy.” The question is: Whose? This is what I’ll examine in the spoiler-filled discussion below.
In one sense, the plot reads as a fairly unrealistic wish-fulfillment checklist, where the wishes being fulfilled are protagonist Michèle’s:
-Michèle’s ex-husband’s young yoga-instructor girlfriend leaves him after realizing she likes the novels of another similarly-named novelist and had, for months, had the wrong guy.
-Michèle intentionally backs into the car of said ex, and smashes the window of said girlfriend’s car.
-Michèle’s mother, who’s generally quite awful, suffers a deadly stroke promptly after announcing her engagement to a gigolo.
-Michèle’s best friend forgives her (in fact is never really angry at her) for having an affair with her husband.
-Michèle, whose background is in book publishing (!), runs a video-game company that almost exclusively employs young men.
-Michèle is played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert, and has a Frenchwoman wardrobe and Frenchwoman mansion and le sigh.
All of this suggests a woman’s fantasy, rather than a man’s. Michèle’s fantasy, or that of the woman viewer who identifies with her. (I mean, it’s now my fantasy to look like Isabelle Huppert, and not a young Isabelle Huppert, but the Huppert of today, who’s 30 years my senior.)
But the above checklist skips over the main point of the movie, which poses the following conundrum: What would you do if your violent, mask-wearing rapist turned out to be the hot married guy from across the street, the one you’ve been sexually fantasizing about? And… it’s exceedingly difficult for me to imagine a woman even asking this question. Yes, Patrick – played by Laurent Lafitte (“de la Comédie-Française,”* as the credits charmingly note) – is gorgeous. But, gah, that would not matter in that context! His sexiness is a red herring in this troubling thought experiment.
That the movie hinges on this preposterous question casts doubt on the female-fantasy theory. (As does the fact that – as A.O. Scott, male movie critic, picked up on, the film was largely made by men. It would be one thing if the movie’s opening scene had actually been ambiguous – that is, if the viewer hadn’t known whether this was a rape or a pre-planned, consented-to sexual encounter. And indeed, the viewer can’t know this, at first. But… Michèle gets her locks changed! She learns how to shoot a gun! And, most tellingly of all, she fights back the second time he attempts to assault her, is able to remove the mask, and learns who he is. So, yeah, maybe the movie’s more a male fantasy. (Coming down on that side of things: Transparent creator Jill Soloway.) Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I sort of think it does. But only sort of, for reasons you really do need to reach the end of the movie to get. It’s not clear (to me, at least) whether the movie’s final twist is or is not at Michèle’s behest.
Oh, and one more pressing question: Is Patrick Jewish? Michèle briefly suspects a coworker of the assault, and asks him to drop trou, explaining that she’d assumed this coworker was Jewish (he’s not) and that the man she’s trying to locate is circumcised. We don’t know much about Patrick other than that he’s a banker and that he, unlike his wife, isn’t a devout Catholic. Is the evil sadistic rapist banker – like so many bankers in French literature, for example – a Jew? If so, if that’s even ambiguous, this would just add another whole layer of problematic-fave.
*Side note: the Comédie-Française apparently shares a logo with Target?
Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.