Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
A man who happens to be a monster. Do you see the contradiction there?
It all begins with a cat. In close-up, it gazes nonchalantly, and then slinks away – while, off screen, we hear the sounds of what could either be pain or pleasure. We quickly realise that the cat’s owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is being violently raped by a masked attacker. Her actions and reactions after the event are, in some respects, strangely like the animal’s: she does not report it to police and, when she finally tells her friends (during an awkwardly public restaurant dinner), she almost seems to shrug it off. “I was assaulted. I guess I was raped. I feel stupid for bringing it up.”
Michèle is, however, a complicated person who likes to compartmentalise her life. Privately, she begins stocking up on weapons, changing the locks on her doors and learning self-defence skills.
Within the first ten minutes of Elle, Paul Verhoeven has deftly sketched a social milieu that, in an affectionate homage to the masters, is part Claude Chabrol (due especially to Huppert’s star presence) and part Luis Buñuel: under the pleasant façade of sophisticated bourgeois manners lie perverse power games and secret double-lives. But, distinct from the more detached ensemble view favoured by those directors, Verhoeven and his US screenwriter David Birke (making a big leap up from his work on B films about serial killers Gacy and Dahmer) tell this complex tale by funnelling everything through close observation of the enigmatic and ever-surprising behaviour of Michèle, who is among the most memorable screen creations of the decade.
Like everything else in Elle, cats return as a small, beguiling motif. When Michèle, once again at an awkward social moment, impulsively tells her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) about the horrendous murders committed 40 years previously by her father, Georges (this elderly actor, oddly, goes uncredited), she adds that he killed several cats as part of his neighbourhood rampage, “but that never gets a mention”. Michèle evidently has good reason to be wary of both the media and police, since a famous photograph of her as a child alongside Georges, directly post-massacre, has tainted her as a possible psychopath in the public eye. This is why, it seems, she does not report her serial rape.
But the film digs much deeper as it unfolds, and we gradually realise that Michèle’s psychological complex crucially involves a refusal to be branded and treated as a victim – plus a desire for control (over other people, and situations) that is often deliciously wicked. Verhoeven invites us to enjoy this wickedness, no matter how morally queasy it may, at times, make us feel. This is what makes Elle such a special and captivating film.
At first glance, Elle would appear to be constructed as a typical mystery story, leaning on a simple question of identity: who is that masked man? In the manner he slickly perfected in Basic Instinct (1992), Verhoeven multiplies the clues and the suspects. At work, there’s the brutish Kurt (Lucas Prisor), antagonistic toward Michèle, and owner of a ski mask. There are the mysterious text messages on Michèle’s phone, somewhere between erotic enticement and menace, which may come from her lover-on-the-side, Robert (Christian Berkel). There is an obscene video that goes around all the office computers, superimposing Michèle’s face on an animated woman being raped. One by one, these possibilities are dealt with – but the film has more on its mind than scattering a generic bunch of narrative red herrings.
Elle superimposes several “worlds” or sectors of society. In the workplace, a certain code of professional alienation rules: the gruesomely graphic rape in a video game is not to be confused with the real thing. Devout religious belief will, on another level, come to play a key role, also involving a psychological “splitting”: after all, Georges committed his murders after being forbidden to “bless” his neighbours’ children, and this is a preview of other inner “torments” to come.
Above all, there is family (four generations, in this case), and the tangled ties that any family imposes. The central relationship, not on a narrative but semantic level, is between Michèle and her adult son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). Michèle muses to a passing stranger, at one point, that perhaps, at his birth, she and her son missed out on that profound bonding or “imprinting” known from the animal kingdom. Of course, it is precisely an assumed imprint of this kind – of the “monster” Georges onto her – that Michèle, through every effort, flees.
Meanwhile, Michèle’s gregarious mother, Irène (Judith Magre – she’s 90 and Huppert is 64, so there’s none of the usual cheating in age-casting here), keeps insisting on a more humane, compassionate view: Georges is still human, still your father … But then, what of Vincent’s absolute commitment to the baby that – as everyone can plainly see but only Michèle will assert aloud – is not his, biologically? Something other than “blood ties” (another Chabrolian obsession) matters here, and it relates to the type of shared experience that Michèle will come to appreciate at the denouement.
In so far as it functions like a generic thriller – which it does only up to a certain point – Elle is frequently described as a revenge tale. This distorts its true intention. Michèle protects herself and undertakes her own investigation “beyond the law”, but she definitely does not seek revenge against her attacker – even once she knows who it is. What Verhoeven refers to the film’s third act goes in a less predictable and more disquieting direction: she toys with her rapist, and begins a strange relationship with him. But, against all likely odds, Michèle turns her story into one that is almost therapeutic in its positive affirmation.
Near the end, after the death of her attacker, Michèle is quizzed by police. As ever, she keeps her cards close to her chest, and tells the interrogator only as much as she wants him to know. This leads to a delightful pay-off that depends upon every secret piece of information we, as spectators, have come to accumulate about her. As the policeman recaps the astonishing facts of the case, Michèle merely replies, with the slightest of smiles: “Who could imagine such a thing?”
MORE Verhoeven: Starship Troopers
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, January 2017