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Elle (2016) | Sony Pictures Classics
Elle (2016) | Sony Pictures Classics

Shame Isn’t A Strong Enough Emotion

Elle and The Complications of the Bad Survivor

TW: this essay discusses sexual assault

The first time I saw Elle, the screening started without subtitles and had to be restarted. We watched the opening scene of Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) being raped twice, in quick succession. The back of my neck felt cold and hot at the same time. The second time it played, I knew what I was going to see and I looked at the ground until the scene had passed, but I could still hear it.

It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that a film would deal with rape as a topic; it’s quite another to immediately be presented with a rape scene and to be in a room full of strangers in the dark, trying to come to terms with what you’re witnessing.

Shortly after that gut-punch of an opening scene, Michèle picks up her cat and tells him off for not even having the decency to scratch her attacker. My tension had gone, and I laughed; Michèle’s actions didn’t seem so strange to me. I was glad I had stuck through the film’s opening which unsettled me so much I wanted to immediately leave. I was glad of that, and I was more glad I had come alone, because the thought of glibly evaluating the film with a well-meaning friend afterwards felt impossible to me then.

After the film ended, there was a Q&A with Isabelle Huppert; a woman asked her if she had talked to survivors of sexual assault to understand Michèle’s character. What research did she do, who did she speak to? I don’t remember what her answer was, exactly. But the gist of it was: she didn’t.

*

Elle (2016) | Sony Pictures Classics

The second time I saw Elle was a few months later. Isabelle Huppert hadn’t yet been nominated for an Oscar, but she soon would be—a career first for an actress who deserved it 10 times over already. I was aware of critical perception at this point, in a way I wasn’t the first time. Elle was either a brilliant film—with the impossible descriptor of “rape revenge comedy”—or it was an insult to survivors of sexual assault. Elle was a complicated film. Elle was a dark film. Elle was a conduit for Paul Verhoeven to be controversial. Elle was apparently too edgy, too risky, to have any American actress play its lead. Elle was lots of things, but none of them were easy to talk about. Not for cinema critics, or for people involved in making the film, and not for me.

And, to me, Elle isn’t a rape revenge comedy. The film contains so much more than her rape, and she wants much more than revenge. But I understand the moniker, because there’s a difficulty in talking about a film which, on paper, seems so outrageous, particularly as we as a society become better at understanding narratives of sexual assault and how to compassionately portray them. Compassionate isn’t necessarily a word that could be used to describe Elle, nor is it a familiar or appropriate narrative of sexual assault: Michèle is raped, and discovers that her masked attacker is her new handsome and kind neighbor, a man she’d previously masturbated over and fantasized about. For some, this might seem like an absurd situation made possible only by film, but we know it’s extremely common—around 90% of perpetrators of sexual assault are often people known to the victim. What does an appropriate response even look like in that situation?

The object of her desire and her attacker are the same, and she doesn’t deal with this in a way an audience can take comfort in. She sleeps with him, tries to give him what he wants in the knowledge that she’s now more in control of what she allows herself to do, tries to find absolution in the very worst thing that’s happened to her—and ultimately, what he wants is for her not to want it.

Michèle’s journey, from her attack to her revenge, is largely undertaken alone. Very early on in the film she gathers her closest friends, including her ex-husband, her current lover, and his wife; over drinks, she lets them know she was assaulted, plainly, and that she doesn’t want them to dwell on it—she says she feels stupid for even bringing it up. They are shocked (understandably), empathetic (of course), and they also think she is wrong. She didn’t call the police, and she’s not going to. She doesn’t want to talk about it. “It’s over,” she says, before trying to order at the restaurant. “It doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Isabelle Huppert in 'Elle' (2016) | Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a duality in this scene which sits at the heart of what makes Elle a complicated film to take any position on. You can equally understand Michèle’s reaction and that of her friends—that Michèle would not want to speak about this unspeakable thing that happened to her, and that she would want to dismiss the conversation even though she invited it. And you can understand her friends shock and confusion when she doesn’t want to process it more than she has. But Elle is so singularly about Michèle, down to the title just referring to the singular she/her in reference to Michèle, that the audience has to grapple with Michèle’s perspective, always—and so while we can sympathize with her immediate post-trauma response, how can we sympathize with her response when she knowingly and positively engages with her attacker? Should we sympathize?

That the answers to these questions are so murky speaks to the film’s overall tone. Elle is funny, yes, but no characters are intentionally funny. There are deep wells of grief in Michèle’s character, but we rarely see them. Michèle’s storyline is as much about her rape as it is about her invective mother, her weak-willed, immature son, her business; she is a fully realized character. The absent father, who has inflicted life-long misery on Michèle after being imprisoned for mass murder, brings about ruminations on faith—the hypocrisy of it and the sins of those who ward against it. For a film that rests at times on the stillness of Isabelle Huppert’s performance, against a backdrop of tremendous familial pain, it’s so active and alive with different ideas, different threads of a larger whole, that it’s hard to understand what the audience is meant to take away from it.

It’s only at the end that Elle offers us something like comfort. Michèle’s journey takes us to a place most would deem appropriate—she is disgusted with the man who took from her, sees his sickness for what it is. But on the way to that conclusion, she is a woman who does not deal well, if at all, with her assault. She re-traumatizes herself, becomes complicit in furthering her own pain, and Verhoeven puts this narrative on film with no judgement or context. Put simply, she is not the good victim.

*

Elle | Sony Pictures Classics

I saw Elle in the cinema for a third time towards the end of its run. A repeat viewing makes for an interesting experience for a film which, in large part, is a whodunnit—because on first watch, it’s more a question of who couldn’t have done it? It’s clear from each meeting we’re privy to that her company is brimming with facile rage and male entitlement, which makes everyone seem suspect. And “everyone” isn’t much of an exaggeration—the majority of the supporting characters are deeply flawed men who are shown to be abusive (her ex-husband), cruel (her father), or simply weak (her son). As much as Michèle might not be a typical survivor to some people, we also know there is no such thing as a typical rapist—rape culture is pervasive and Verhoeven shows us the potential for violence in all the various men who surround Michèle’s life.

One likely candidate that we’re shown, a senior team member at the games company, is found by Michèle in the office after hours. The camera tracks as he pulls at limbs, positions her like a mannequin—this nude body out of place in the sterile brightness of the office. We see him manipulate this woman’s body and objectify her, seemingly showing no regard for her comfort or desires. Our view is Michèle’s view, who watches him—perhaps thoughtful, perhaps just expressionless. It’s this same expressionlessness we see later when she is telling her neighbor about the brutality of her father’s murders. Michèle is matter-of-fact as she talks about what it felt like as a little girl to see her father return home, having gone on a murderous spree: She was a child, and when her father asked her to clean up blood, she did. She didn’t know what else to do. People thought her a monster, just for being a child obeying her father.

It’s a horrific story, about yet another horrific event she’s endured, perpetrated by men in her life whom she believed she could trust. Told in such a calm, straightforward way, it’s hard to know how to move on. It would be easy for the film to psychoanalyze Michèle as a character, to trace her response to her present trauma back to her severely traumatic childhood and the atrocities men have committed against her. But Elle does not take this path; instead, we get comic relief: “You heard about the 27 human victims, not about the animals,” Michèle corrects her neighbor, when he tells her of the murders he heard about as a young boy. “They never get a mention. Six dogs, a couple of cats, too. For whatever reason, he spared a hamster.”

*

Elle (2016) | Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a special kind of vulnerability that comes with recommending your favorite film to someone—like if they don’t get it, maybe they don’t get you. If they think this thing is strange or sick or weird, then that’s what they would think of you if they knew you, truly. I think everyone has experienced this to some degree—when you tell someone they should definitely read a certain book, and they agree, but then it never comes up again. It’s the feeling of wanting someone to love the thing that you love, to treasure it, and see it in its entirety—to have the same experience you had with it. It’s an unfair ask. No one person has the exact patterns or connections or responses as you. Elle is one of those things it feels vulnerable to share. It’s why I wanted, needed, those men in the cinema to understand, even though I will never see them again. I wanted them to see what I saw, and not the ugliness I think it’s so easy to take away from the plot summary.

There isn’t a way to explain the profundity of experiencing assault. Perhaps even more so, to accept you were not a good victim—that I was not a good victim. That I apologized, I held their secret, and changed everything about myself until I didn’t recognize my body as the same person that they took from. My experience was nothing like Michèle’s, but like all good art, I could see enough of my reaction and inaction in Michèle, in every blank stare and attempt to rewrite the story into one that made her the controller, to be moved by it. I found in Michèle Leblanc the not-good victim.

Isabelle Huppert said she didn’t speak to survivors of sexual assault before playing Michèle. But if she had spoken to me, I would have told her to make Elle. I would have thanked her for making a film that helped me talk about my own assault; for giving me a language to explain my shame, the regrets I have, the incomprehension of the damage it was still doing to me long after it had happened. I would’ve wanted to see someone fuck it up completely, do it worse than me, change her mind, carry on with her big, full life, and not be vilified. I am grateful Elle was made, and that cinema has the space to be confusing and uneasy, and funny and fucked up. I’m glad I can watch Elle and change my mind about it every time, and find something new to think about for a while.

My favorite film is Elle. I saw it those three times in the cinema, and many times since. I have never watched it with another person. I hope one day I am able to.