Elle – the film everyone is talking about

PLEASE NOTE: Be warned. This is a review of a rather bizarre but highly critically acclaimed French film that includes scenes of rape. We would like to state categorically that we do not condone violence against women.

This film, Elle, is extraordinary on every level. I had heard so many people talking about it mostly because of Isabelle Huppert’s Oscar nominated performance however I had little knowledge of the story or more importantly the content. Elle is a 2016 French-German psychological thriller film directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by David Birke, based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian.

The story is about rape however it is treated in an almost comedic manner which is offensive to women – it is troublingly funny. Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by an assailant in a ski mask, whilst her cat looks on impassively, then promptly cleans up the mess and resumes her life. She is the assertive head of a successful video game company, where her male employees are alternately resentful of or infatuated with her. She feels detached from her son Vincent, who submits to the pregnant Josie, his domineering, ungrateful and likely unfaithful girlfriend. Michèle has a contentious relationship with her mother, Irène, whom she resents for her narcissism and involvements with younger men. Meanwhile, she carries on an affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, and develops a risqué flirtation with her neighbor Patrick, a banker who is married to a devoutly Catholic woman named Rebecca. Furthermore, Michèle is the daughter of an infamous mass murderer—who involved the then 10-year-old Michèle in his murder spree—whose parole hearing is soon approaching. Haunted by the violent event from her childhood and the subsequent media frenzy, Michèle is wary of law enforcement and does not report the rape to police, despite the pleas of her friends.

Bizarre? Yes you would be entirely right.

Elle was unveiled at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and it was described as “pure Verhoeven, extremely erotic and perverted.”

Maybe men find it erotic but I found it a distasteful thriller and closed my eyes for much of the very violent rape scenes. Isabelle Huppert herself has said in press interviews “Men aren’t afraid of women the way women are afraid of men.” I am troubled by a rape victim who later seems turned on by sexual violence and so the film did not sit comfortably with me and I believe it goes too far.

However I then found myself laughing at some parts, at Michèle’s dysfunctional family and friends circle. I admired Isabelle’s performance, her amazing body for a 63 year old woman, the gorgeous clothes she wore. I envied her ability to calmly juggle her very complicated life but the way she handled the rape that was going on in her life was unrealistic and detached.

At the end of the film I felt that this could only be a French movie as some of the scenes were just preposterous but then this is the nation that published pictures of their President leaving an apartment building on a moped in an extremely geeky helmet having allegedly been visiting his mistress and he is still the President. The French just shrug their shoulders. However I am not sure this film deserves just a shrug as it raises the question of sexual violence and is it acceptable to treat it in such a trivial, dismissive way?

The video below, interestingly, does not show the rape scenes and it is not until you are settled comfortably in your seat with your glass of wine that you are shaken to the core.