Written by David Birke and Philippe Djan
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Elle is a deceptively simple film, jolting its audience by opening on the ending of a brutal assault and rape inside the home of Michele, an upper middle class older single woman. The rapist, his face covered in a ski mask, flees and Michele with almost mechanical automaticity takes a bath, puts makeup over her black eye, and goes about her day and the next with no reaction. It’s only the following evening at dinner with friends and her ex-husband that she casually reveals, trying to laugh it off, that she was raped. The viewer is meant to be unsettled by how cold Michele is through all of this with her friends and family acting as our stand-ins, utterly shocked at what happened.
Elle is a multi-layered and mindbogglingly complicated film that touches on the themes of class, religion, guilt, and generational dysfunction. I found myself staggered at the end of the picture, still not one hundred percent sure how I feel about it, but confident that there are layers I have not been able to discover due to a single viewing. What I did take away is that this is not a revenge film or a defense of misogyny, the character of Michele is not so simple to be boiled down to a single viewpoint and that is something we learn more about as the film progresses.
Michele’s father, now a seventy-six-year-old, is incarcerated in prison for a crime committed forty years prior. Michele was a child at the time, but her role in what her father did has always been questioned, spurred on by a chance photograph of the young girl at the crime scene as police were gathering evidence. Even as an adult, Michele contends with people who recognize her and then dump their tray of food on her lap due to a modern interpretation that she was complicit in her father’s crimes. This life-shaking event has caused Michele to avoid seeking out the aid of the police as she explains the authorities and the media will seek to label her as a pariah or a victim, and she’s working to be above all of that.
A lot is going on in Elle about familial connections by blood and by love. Michele’s father is both a monstrous and pathetic figure, with his perspective intentional hidden from us. We see a news documentary about the case, and that’s it, plus Michele’s description to a neighbor of what happened that infamous night. The audience will, due to a lack of information, wondering if she has inherited her father’s demented mind. Talking to a nurse at the hospital where her grandchild is being born, Michele tells of how her best friend Anna’s child was stillborn, so she breastfed Michele’s son Vincent. This leads to Anna becoming a surrogate mother figure to Vincent, who has a contentious relationship with Michele. Vincent’s child is not his biological son, but he raises him with just as much love. Michele spends much time chastizing Vincent for caring for this child, and it opens up a window into her views on what it means to be a parent and connected to a child.
One of the things I think the film is trying to do that several critics have had their hackles raised over is de-emphasizing the rape. Michele is fervent in her belief that she doesn’t want to be hemmed into a corner with a label slapped on her. While it’s not healthy to actively work to not deal with trauma, it makes much sense that a woman would want to move past that horrific event as quickly as possible. There is a faint mystery around who the rapist is and that plot thread does get resolved by the end; however, director Paul Verhoeven intentionally made this film in Europe, rather than the States. He did this knowing that if this were an American production, he would be pushed to make it about the rape mystery and Michele getting revenge, rather than spending time unraveling her character and letting the audience understand her psychology before addressing the plot. I suspect there is so much more to Elle than what I have seen so far and it is a film that begs for multiple viewings.