Elle was one of those films that came around the time of the Academy Awards. It has a lot of interesting elements, but it features a lot of elements some would first find unwatchable. Is it worth it?
The film begins with a cat witnessing the rape of her owner Michele LeBlanc (that’s right). The masked rapist immediately leaves. Michele just calmly cleans up themes and resumes her life, but doesn’t call the police. Michele returns back to her job as CEO of a video game company where her male employees either lust after her or view her as a ‘bitch.’ She tries to maintain a relationship with her son Vincent but feels detached as she feels he’s being controlled by her pregnant girlfriend. She has a troubled relationship with her mother who is narcissistic and has a thing for younger men. She’s having a love affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, but also has caught the eye of her new neighbor Patrick, although his devoutly Catholic wife Anna is unaware of this. Michele also has a troubled past.
The reason why Michele doesn’t call the police is because she has a sordid past. She is the daughter of a mass murderer who was arrested and imprisoned over 40 years ago when Michele was 10 years-old and even involved Michele in his murder spree. His parole hearing is coming up and the events from the past still haunt her. Her friends plead for her to report the rape to the police but Michele won’t, fearing the police have it in for her. Life is hard for Michele as she receives harassing text messages form a man claiming to watch her. She’s also the victim of a hacked video game which shows an alien with her face being raped by another alien. She learns the male colleague who made the hacked video game is infatuated with her but not the rapist. Her ex-husband learned of the news and tried looking out for her safety.
Christmas only adds to the stress as her mother falls into a stroke and her dying wish to Michele is to see her father. Michele tells her son Vincent she believes he’s not the father of his girlfriend’s child. The rapist returns for the third time, but Michele takes of the mask to discover it’s Patrick. Even though she now knows, she still doesn’t call the police nor have an alarm installed in her house.
Michele goes to visit her father in prison only to learn he hung himself. On the ride home, she gets into a car accident. She calls her friends instead of an ambulance, but the only one who responds to the call is Patrick. Michele gives Patrick a shocking confession of her feelings toward him which leaves Patrick shocked and confused. Then the day of the celebration of the launch of the new video game. At the party, she confessed to Anne her affair with Robert, which breaks Anna’s heart. The story ends with a tensely climactic moment and an ending that comes across as triumphant.
The thing about this film is that it deals with a complicated cat-and-mouse situation. Michele wants to get her rapist arrested but she is afraid to call the police, feeling they’re after her. That could also explain why she wouldn’t call an ambulance after the car crash: because of her past. She has a sense of who did it, but she feels an attraction to him. She is caught in situations in her work, in her family and even within her circle of friends at the same time. It’s enough to make anyone snap. It even turns her into a spiteful bitter person to whomever she meets up with. You hope that her rapist is caught but you’re left wondering how will it end? Will he be caught? Will Michele be the one who ends up killed? Will her rapist end up her new lover? It keeps you intrigued.
One thing about this is that this film is a psychological thriller that succeeds in taking subject matter that is disturbing and even unwatchable and turns it into a story that becomes positive in the end. Normally I am very nervous about the subject of rape in a film. In fact the very opening scene of the rape (as witnessed by the cat) and her bleeding vagina in the bath really had me questioning what Paul Verhoeven was up to. I’ll admit I had a mistrust to Verhoeven because I know he has a reputation for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. I still haven’t forgotten the misogyny of the latter and I was anticipating misogyny in the film at first. Even the scene that appears like Michele is consenting to the rape of Patrick makes me wonder, in addition to knowing Michele actually gets sexual satisfaction from it. In the end, the film delivers a strong female character who is able to piece the puzzle together. It’s at the end we see Michele as if she triumphed in the situation.
SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING, BYPASS THIS PARAGRAPH: The ending is a surprise as well. Throughout the whole film, you see Michele as a bitter, hurting, troubled woman with the world seemingly against her or bothering her in every which way. However it’s right after Patrick is killed that everything magically becomes right. We see how Rebecca isn’t as hurt over Patrick’s death as she’s moving out, and makes it obvious she knew what Patrick was up to. We see how Vincent has been able to get better in his career and relationship. We see how Michele is finally able to make peace with her father. We also see how Michele makes peace with both Josie and Anna as they’ve both left Robert, and even resumes the strong friendship with Anna. It’s like life for all during the time of Michele being raped was what was causing friction in the lives of Michele and those around her, and it was Patrick’s death at the hands of Vincent that set everything right for all. Normally something like that wouldn’t work in terms of a story. I mean how is it possible for a rape victim to recover from what happened seemingly overnight? But the way it was played out in the story made it look very believable and made it look like the story ended on the right note. Quite an accomplishment, especially for a psychological thriller.
This film is actually an adaptation of a French novel titled Oh. I’ve never read the novel but David Birke does a very good job in creating a story that’s both a psychological thriller and a big puzzle that somehow is able to get all the pieces to fit in the end. Paul Verhoeven also did a good job of directing. I will admit I did get suspicious with him, especially after seeing certain scenes. However it’s in the end that I feel he did a very good job of creating a strong female character despite appearing to push the envelope at times. However making the story work also came down to Isabelle Huppert in her performance of the protagonist Michele. She had to portray a character who seemed to have everything pushing her to snap but somehow keep her composure throughout the ordeal, despite being bitter and spiteful, and appear triumphant in the end. She accomplished that feat excellently. Supporting performances of note include Laurent Lafitte as the troubled neighbor Patrick and Anne Consigny as Anna: the friend caught in the love triangle.
Elle begins as a film that one would expect to be misogynist, but instead paves the way for a female character who triumphs in the end. It’s the film’s surprising twists and turns that make it.