's recent indictment of the handling of rape cases in Scotland is well-judged, as is the language he uses to frame the issue. In a context where sexual violence is the only crime that is on the increase, where only a tiny proportion of cases that manage to reach court secure a conviction, and many victims of rape never even tell a soul, the criminal justice system is properly described as betraying the victims of rape.
This is the wider context of 'Elle', a film directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven in which a woman is unequivocally viciously raped. It has drawn ire from feminists and guardians of morality alike because it challenges assumptions about how a rape victim 'should' react. It is one of the most unflinchingly honest depictions of violent rape that I have ever seen. It is also a very dark comedy. Playing one moment as a grim thriller, the next as a surreal farce, 'Elle' confounds audience expectations and is very unsettling as well as upsetting. By constantly wrong-footing us, we are forced to pay attention to what is in front of our eyes while we scan the surrounding territory for clues. We cannot fathom the motivations of the main character Michèle, played by the fearless (and peerless) Isabelle Huppert.
Compared with his earlier films, notably 'Basic Instinct', Verhoeven is on restrained form here, commandeering all of the film's cinematic elements, such as Stephane Fontaine's grey and beige tinted cinematography, in the service of Huppert's mesmerising performance. Every disdainful glance, slightly raised eyebrow or brisk aside is loaded with meaning, whether distaste, desire or distress, conscious or unconscious. Based on a novel by Philippe Djian and adapted for screen by David Birke, 'Elle' is a knowing hybrid of different genres concerning a particular rape and particular woman, one who is unsentimental, sly and complex.
'Elle' opens in the middle of a horrifically violent rape scene observed by an impassive green-eyed cat (a portent perhaps of the grim cat and mouse game that will ensue). We learn in flashback that a man in a mask has broken into the elegant Parisian home of Michèle Leblanc (an act that will be repeated). The badly beaten rape victim, a woman in her early 50s (Huppert is in her early 60s), reacts with calm and control. She doesn't report the assault to the police. She orders a takeaway meal, stuffs her bloody clothes in the bin, takes a bath, and returns to work as usual where she seeks advice on self-defence from a colleague, and arms herself with an axe.
It soon becomes clear that sexual violence and harassment are part of Michèle's everyday life. She runs a video game company specialising in gruesome products depicting violence against women. About half-way through the film we learn about her traumatic childhood as the daughter of a religious serial killer. Her father preyed on small children and made his daughter an unwilling onlooker as a 10-year-old child. She has good reason to be wary of the media and police. A famous photograph of her as a child alongside her father circulates on the internet and taints her whole life as a potential psychopath.
'Elle' is centrally about damage. We gradually grasp her refusal to be branded and treated as a victim and that this is part and parcel of a desire for control over people and situations. By seeming to be passive (or, even, collusive) rather than seeking revenge after discovering her rapist's identity, this may be Michèle's strategy for controlling the situation. We are never quite sure. Nor does the film pivot on the identity of the masked rapist who begins sending her threatening text messages. It has bigger fish to fry than a few red herrings, as it sets about constructing the complexly layered social world(s) in which Michèle must function.
At work, gruesomely graphic videos are not to be confused with real life, yet Michèle is routinely subjected to misogynistic disdain, even abuse. On another level, devout religious belief plays a key role, possibly enabling various kinds of 'splitting' to occur. After all, Michèle's father murdered his neighbours when forbidden to 'bless' their children. And later, in an astonishing conversation between Michèle and her (now known) assailant's pious wife, the wife reveals the staggering self-delusion that enabled her to survive her marriage. Most importantly, there is family with its tangled ties, including an ex-husband, now dating a younger yoga teacher, and an elderly mother who is having an affair with a gigolo.
Michèle's most pressing family relationship is with her feckless son Vincent. She suspects they never bonded properly (thereby escaping the 'imprinting' that she has spent her whole life fleeing?). And what are we to make of Vincent's total commitment to his abusive girlfriend's (black) baby that everyone knows cannot possibly be his? Only Michèle is sufficiently unembarrassed to say so but she will come to appreciate at the film's denouement that it is her shared experience with her son rather than any blood connection that really counts. As she says to him after the crazy denouement (which also provides Vincent with a way forward in his life), 'It was always about the child for you wasn't it?'
This is not a rape drama focusing on justice like 'The Accused'. Nor is it a rape revenge film. Michèle does get revenge but in a way that subverts traditional revenge dramas and is more in keeping with a French farce. Everything is finally tied up neatly in a deeply satisfying manner: 'You don't really expect to get away with what you did to me?' Michèle asks her attacker, with whom she may now have entered some kind of sado-masochistic dance. But has she? The question is irrelevant as Kenneth Roy recognises when he asks rhetorically if the woman raped by the footballers in West Lothian and the 12-year-old in the taxi queue were 'asking for it'.
For Michèle, responding to violence in ways deemed socially appropriate is beside the point. What matters is managing to live with trauma any way she can. She seems to live her life once removed, ironically distanced from emotion and those around her. Such detachment regarding sexuality and relationships leads to some hilariously outrageous scenes. In one, she masturbates, watching her attractive neighbour through binoculars as he sets up a nativity scene in his garden. In another, a man (whom we learn later is her ex-lover) unzips his trousers. Presenting himself to her, she presents him with a bucket.
It struck me several times during 'Elle' that it could only have been made in France and that only Huppert could have got away with playing the role of Michèle (receiving a nomination for best actress at the 2017 Academy Awards). In a wickedly unpredictable performance she gives the impression that she knows exactly what she is doing while not quite knowing why. That is quite a trick. Keeping her cards close to her chest leads to a delightful pay off – one that depends on paying close attention to every bit of information we glean about Michèle in the course of the film. As the police officer recaps events, she replies, a slight smile playing on her lips, 'Yes, who could imagine such a thing?' Among actors, uniquely, Isabelle Huppert could.