Critic's Notebook: Why Cannes' 'Elle' is the Most Empowering "Rape Movie" Ever Made

Elle 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Paul Verhoeven’s film about a woman’s complicated response to being raped will draw ire from feminists and others, but it’s one of the bravest, most honest and inspiring examinations of the subject ever put onscreen.

This year's Cannes Film Festival kicked off with a rape joke, aimed at Woody Allen, by master of ceremonies Laurent Lafitte. But who would have guessed that the misguided stab at humor would be a sign of things to come onscreen?

Whether by accident or programming design, the competition indeed featured three films where rape, or attempted rape, was central to the plot, or the “inciting incident” as they like to say in screenwriting jargon: Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (co-starring Lafitte, strangely enough). Other films in the main slate also touched on sexual violence or abuse. In Sean Penn’s The Last Face, an African refugee is praised for her ability to keep on dancing despite horrific genital injuries inflicted by soldiers. An African prostitute is subjected to unwanted sexual advances in the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl. Jena Malone's character forces herself on Elle Fanning (and later a female corpse) in The Neon Demon. And in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, an unwelcome groping from the female protagonist’s skeevy father is the last straw driving her to join a group of traveling magazine sellers; later it looks like she might be gang-raped by a trio of rich cowboys before being rescued. 

But only one of those films is likely to take flak in the coming months, and that’s Elle, which quickly picked up the descriptive tag “rape comedy” on the Croisette. For some, "rape comedy" is an entirely inconceivable oxymoron, something that, as Jessica Kiang wittily pointed out in The Playlist, is “just not done.” You could practically smell the fear in every blog, review and social media post, especially those written by men, as they tentatively, gingerly, oh-so-carefully heaped entirely deserved praise on Elle, all the while taking pains to acknowledge that it will be “controversial,” “challenging” and “divisive.”

One understands their trepidation: Elle complicates its rape narrative with an exploration of female masochism — a theme rarely addressed in current cinema, where masochism tends to only be allowed if it’s consensual and part of a controlled BDSM diet a la Fifty Shades. In Elle, protagonist Michele (Isabelle Huppert) certainly doesn’t want to be raped, but once the incident happens (it’s shown several times in flashback, and each time it’s categorically clear that this indeed is a rape), the trauma stirs up uncomfortable feelings in her. And those feelings don’t match what we've been conditioned to expect from standard depictions of sexual violence in various art forms.

Michele does not fall apart, or go into obvious shock, or go to the police or even shut down sexually after her attack. First she brushes up the broken crockery on the floor and tidies her house. Then she takes a bath (the bubbly froth goes red with blood above her vagina, suggesting how violent the rape was). She continues to be as tough as old boots at work, not so much leaning in as practically head-butting her male employees when necessary. (The fact that she runs a gaming company is a great touch, given the high levels of misogyny in that industry.) She continues to have trysts with her married lover and also has the hots for her strapping younger neighbor across the street. In one delicious, perversely Hitchcockian-cum-Brian-DePalma-esqe scene, she masturbates while watching him, through binoculars, set up a Nativity scene with his hyper-Catholic wife. Michele, in short, refuses to see herself as a victim at all.

There will undoubtedly be feminists who take umbrage with the film, and not just because of its complex, intertwined examinations of desire, masochism and power. Some, I suspect, will denounce it for showing a rape victim refusing to report her rapist, and therefore not setting a good example. This is not The Accused. Others will be shocked that Michele doesn’t show sufficient rage. This is not (contrary to early rumors) a revenge movie, like Ms. 45, or Baise-Moi, or I Spit on Your Grave or any of the “final girl” slasher flicks explored by Carol Clover, the feminist academic who wrote the influential study on women and horror films, Men, Women and Chainsaws. (Michele does get revenge in the end, but that’s not the point of the film.)

There will inevitably be a lot of fuss about the fact that Elle was directed by the same man who made Basic Instinct (which was picketed by feminists) and Showgirls (a film that I, and every gay man I know, love). But as far as I can see, the authorship of this film half belongs to Huppert, not just the only star Verhoeven could find who was willing to play the role, but also the sort of actor who has built her career on unflinchingly honest portraits of difficult women. It’s not just that she’s an actor who is willing to be filmed cutting her vagina with broken glass (as she did in The Piano Teacher); it’s the intelligence she projects, the way she can turn a line with the tartest delivery this side of Maggie Smith, or annihilate with a glance.

For me, Elle is perhaps the smartest, most honest and empowering film about rape I’ve ever seen — because while it's about damage, it's also about resilience and how whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Say what you will about Michele, but in many ways she's a role model for menopausal women everywhere. You can keep Helen Mirren in her action-granny films (Eye in the Sky, the Red franchise, etc.). When I grow up (I have 12 years to go), I want to be Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian once wrote, in relation to 2009 Cannes competition entry Delta, about what he termed “arthouse rape" — defined as “a flourish of sexual violence that, in some sacrificial sense, pays for the indulgence and drifting dreaminess, and which functions as a brutally corrective assertion of tough reality. The sexual assault (and perhaps worse) provides what is apparently a self-explanatory resolution. The consequences are of no interest; the rape wraps it up.” Examples of films that employ the "arthouse rape" — all tellingly pics that screened at Cannes — include Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay, Lars von Trier’s Dogville and possibly the nastiest example, 2005 Critics’ Week entrant The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, which climaxes with a woman being gang-raped and then fatally pierced with a pointy artwork from vagina to thorax. Reviewing that last one was so traumatic for me that for a while I wanted to give up being a critic altogether.

In the end, I find the way the aforementioned films deploy rape as solemn punctuation far more depressing, even distressing, than anything that happens in Elle, because those movies are not really about rape at all. Elle really is about rape, and it explodes conventions, challenges assumptions and gets right in your face about the subject in a way that very few films have ever done, all the while being hilarious and wise.

Of course, one of the reasons Elle is bound to attract so much controversy is the language we use to talk about it. Taking inspiration from the disability movement, which has replaced "disabled people" with the more tactful “people with disabilities," perhaps we should look at this not as a “rape movie" at all — but rather as a richly black, deliciously gleeful comedy about a woman, who happens to be raped.