Elle is an accomplished piece of film-making, with undeniably strong performances from its talented cast, with Huppert – unsurprisingly – proving utterly compelling as Michèle, a successful business woman navigating her response to a violent rape.
There’s much to commend this movie: it’s always engaging and never clichéd. It looks glorious: all cold winter colours and long windows; it’s languorous and sexy and full of surprises. But I’m struggling. I can’t overcome my discomfort with the idea of a narrative where a woman wants to be raped. Is that what happens here? Is that how she wrests control from her attacker – by asserting her desire for that which he would rather seize from an unwilling victim? It seems a sorry sort of power. I’ve read articles referring to this as a post-feminist narrative, celebrating Michèle’s strength and sexual confidence. And there’s some merit to this argument: she refuses to become a victim, does not conform to expectations that she should be somehow broken by the act. She remains a sexual being, with urges she follows, even when there’s a moral compromise. This is no two-dimensional character.
And yet. And yet. Her attacker still breaks into her home wearing a mask, hits her, abuses her. He violates her. She has no say. Choosing a repeat performance cannot be construed as somehow winning, can it? Especially as retribution, when it happens, is exacted for her by a man.
So, I don’t know. I don’t think rape stories should be banned, and I don’t think they should all be morality tales with deserving victims and evil perpetrators. I like that Michèle is a difficult, unlikeable person, with a strange past and questionable values. But I do wonder, really, what this particular film – with its male director (Paul Verhoeven) and its three male writers (David Birke, Philippe Djian and Harold Manning) – is really saying about violent assault against women. It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure.