[Spoiler alert. All my reviews have spoilers.]
There are reasons why we like actors who we can “read” what’s going on with them from their expressions, but Isabelle Huppert is the opposite. Isabelle Huppert is a fearless and inscrutable actress. Though her face is always expressive we have no idea what’s going on in her head. Paul Verhoeven not only takes advantage of this but it is central to the enigma of her character Michele Leblanc in “Elle.”
I know Elle is controversial, so I deliberately avoiding reading about the controversy (or other reviews) until I could see it for myself. I have been a fan of Ms. Huppert’s since I saw “Piano Teacher” in 2001. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended that movie only to second guess myself and wonder if they could take it. I would be careful to recommend “Elle” as it deals this sexual violence against women in a way that is contrary to dominant paradigms of discussing this topic.
The gist of the film is that Michele is brutally raped and though traumatized, she seemingly goes about her life with the somewhat casual addition of buying pepper spray, an attack axe, and taking shooting lessons. So you get the impression this is going to be a film about a “strong woman fighting back.” While it is partly about that it is also much more complex and enigmatic. We discover (partly to our horror) that Michele has a kinky erotic side of her that was “activated” in a some kind of S&M-ish way by the attack. Only a fearless director like Verhoeven (why do European directors seem to corner the market on bold?) would dare take this on.
We have early evidence Michele she has exotic sexual tastes. She casually has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband. As the boss of her computer gaming company, she has a very strange way of dealing with an incident of sexual harassment. It’s inverted — a male subordinate harasses her indirectly. She humiliates the male culprit by making him expose himself to her and seems to “forgive” him because —why?— he has an “attractive penis.” Whoa. We’re not only not in Kansas, we’re certainly not in the continental USA where not even a strange woman would deal with harassment with kinky counter-harassing humiliation.
I think what’s interesting about the film is connected to its controversy. While at least the West is trying to be more aware of the issue of violence to women there is a tendency to simplify issues in an attempt to clarify the underlying causes. It is complicated by women who seem loyal to their abusers. We tend to think of them as lesser or deranged, not empowered attractive CEOs like Michele.
As a result the once-common Hollywood motif of “No! No!… Yes!” can no longer be used as an erotic come-on. No means no, unless something is wrong with you. Well, something is wrong with Michele but we never know what it is and by the end we’re still wondering. Huppert’s character insists on the unfashionable freedom to choose what she wants to do to punish a sexual offender. And we are never sure what she’s going to do— kill him or re-enact the abuse one more time. And then maybe kill him.