Elle ★★★★★

“I see you’re staying in character.” “A big part of my character is being unpredictable.”

Note: To the extent a character study can be spoiled, the following contains some spoilers—but if you don’t wish to know what happens in Elle, then you probably shouldn’t be reading about Elle, now should you?

Early in Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) parks her car outside a restaurant at which she plans to have dinner with her ex-husband, Richard Casamayou (Charles Berling), her best friend and business partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), and Anna’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel). Parallel parking, Michèle backs into another car—undeterred, she continues to nudge the car until it moves backward and its fender is detached (though the space is big enough for her vehicle without such violence). It is at first an odd moment—we have seen many traits from Michèle, but carelessness has not been one of them. It is only upon the group’s departure that we realize the injured vehicle belongs to Richard and Michèle’s conduct begins to come into focus. It is impulsive but also carefully controlled, a lashing out that is also somehow cool and collected. It is a mass of contradictions, but as presented by Huppert’s fiery eyes and icy exterior, it makes perfect sense.

Michèle’s behavior might be thought of as juvenile and passive-aggressive—which would be unsurprising, seeing as Michèle was unwittingly thrust into the limelight some forty years earlier when, as a 10-year-old girl, her father was arrested for a series of brutal murders in which Michèle was implicated as a clean-up accomplice, if not more. What deeply scarred child wouldn’t suffer some form of arrested adolescence as a result? It might also be thought of as righteous vengeance, albeit of dubious appropriateness—and who could blame her, seeing as Richard beat her after foisting upon her a dimwitted son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), whom she must now support while Richard molders as a liberal arts cliché, a mostly-failed novelist sleeping with students half his age. Or it might be thought of as a fit of autocratic pique—which would be plausible, given Michèle’s status as co-owner (with Anna) of a successful video game company in which she must guide/tolerate a gaggle of libidinous, insubordinate overgrown man-children when she’s not busy guiding/tolerating her layabout son and his temperamental girlfriend, Josie (Alice Isaaz), or her Botoxed cougar of a mother, Irène (Judith Magre). Whatever one thinks of Michèle’s actions, it is hard to deny that they form a complicated web of coping strategies (though perhaps maladaptive ones) and defense mechanisms.

This is by no means unique to Michèle—everyone develops and employs skills to deal with stress, to navigate unpleasant situations, and to avoid conflict. But most of these skills take predictable, if not altogether rational, forms. When Josie gives birth to a child whose skin tone makes clear he cannot be Vincent’s biological son, Vincent—desperate to hold together some sort of picturesque nuclear family to replace the one he did not get growing up—pretends that the baby is his, genetics be damned. Whether it is the wisest choice is debatable, and certainly it is not a decision all would make, but it is garden-variety denial, not a particularly surprising reaction to a difficult circumstance.

These mundane responses—sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, sometimes self-destructive—persist on all sides of Michèle. Richard, the man of failure at work and at home, seeks pathetic validation at the hands (and other parts) of someone young enough to be his daughter, thinking she reveres him as the artistic success he never was. Irène, fast approaching her expiration date, distracts herself with plastic surgery and with Ralf (Raphaël Lenglet), a gigolo roughly half a century her junior, while insisting that her incarcerated former husband is really a decent man, his monstrous behavior notwithstanding. Robert, mired in middle age and bored with his marriage, pursues an affair with Michèle with the self-centered lasciviousness of a teenage boy—an affair that Michèle accommodates, albeit without his enthusiasm. Kevin (Arthur Mazet), one of Michèle’s employees, harbors a not-so-secret crush on his boss, the fantasy of which he actualizes by placing Michèle’s face on the body of a violated damsel in distress in the company’s newest game, while Kurt (Lucas Prisor), another employee, chafes against taking orders from a woman with a publishing background (but not against ordering around a topless young model for photographs) with all the bravado that comes with being hopelessly insecure. Michèle’s neighbor, Rebecca (Virginie Efira), responds to the iniquity and grotesquerie of the world around her by ardently embracing Catholicism, insisting upon watching the Pope’s Christmas mass promptly at midnight and even venturing to see him in person. Rebecca’s husband, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), meanwhile, responds to his own dark urges in the manner he deems necessary. It would be wrong to say that any of them does exactly what one would expect—the range of human emotion and personality and idiosyncrasy is too vast for any one response to be preeminent—but nothing that any of them does could fairly be called unexpected.

Which brings us back to Michèle. What makes Michèle so beguiling, so upsetting, so entrancing, so maddening is that Michèle does not behave in any expectable manner. Certainly she does not conduct herself as the victim in a rape-(something adjacent to)revenge tale should per cinema’s past. Michèle’s story is not one of a woman who tracks down and destroys her attacker, à la Ms. 45 or I Spit on Your Grave. It is not one of a rape victim wronged by the criminal justice system, à la The Accused. It is not one of a woman blamed by society for the sexual misdeeds of another, à la Dogville or Johnny Belinda. It is something weird and strange and utterly itself—the story of an iconoclastic, difficult, witty, charming, successful, vindictive, manipulative, confident, cruel, and powerful person, who happens to be a woman, who happens to be raped.

That is the genius of Verhoeven and Huppert’s film (and it is Huppert’s at least as much as Verhoeven’s, if not more): It is a character study that masquerades as a variety of different genre pictures without ever settling down in any one territory any more than Michèle can be pegged as the embodiment of any one trait. Playing knowingly off of Verhoeven’s reputation not just as a courter of controversy but as the personality behind such lusty potboilers as The 4th Man, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls, Elle spends at least some of its time being an erotic thriller in the vein of Chabrol or Hitchcock, with a dose of Agatha Christie-style whodunit thrown in. But Verhoeven and his writer, David Birke, just as quickly slide into pitch-dark comedy, a satire of bourgeois life and manners and society that is at times Buñuelian in its absurdity. And there is no small component of melodrama to their tale, harking back to the 1930s/40s “strong woman” films headed by Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis. And of course there is a revenge angle, however oblique. That all of these tonal and storytelling shifts should harmonize so seamlessly is a testament to the skill of all involved—particularly Huppert—but is less surprising when one considers that Elle is less a statement on rape culture or a thrill-laden distraction and more a film about one particularly intriguing, particularly unusual person. As with all character studies, it is the investigation of Michèle that matters far more than the plot.

That the reaction to the film, though generally positive, should be mixed and often cautious is no surprise: Rape is (rightly) an exceedingly sensitive subject, and one often treated sadly as little more than a plot device to advance the story of or inquiry into a rape-victim-adjacent man, as though the most important part of a woman’s victimization is how it impacts the XY chromosomes into whose orbit she has drifted (for she, being a woman, would never have her own orbit). But part of what is so confounding about Elle is also what is so thrilling about it: So seldom do films place at their center unapologetically complicated women. Men routinely get to play antiheroes and assholes and other remarkable personages, characters who are complex and layered, sometimes insufferable and sometimes magnetic (and sometimes all at once). Women, by contrast, are frequently relegated to the supportive wife, the vindictive shrew, the pretty ingénue. Even excellent performances in excellent films—of recent vintage, Emma Stone’s turn as Mia in La La Land comes to mind—are often crafted from somewhat thinly written material. It is one reason (among many) that the race to nab a Best Actor Oscar nomination is usually so competitive, with many male-fronted stories about complicated men vying for a limited number of slots, while the Best Actress race is usually comparatively thin—the Academy’s scope of inquiry is too narrow, to be sure, but even so intricate and sophisticated female-led films tend to be distressingly fewer and further between. That Michèle herself is jarring is a natural response—she does many peculiar, unpredictable things. But that Elle itself is jarring says as much about audience expectations of female protagonists—especially ones who are victimized—as it does about Elle’s admittedly outré content.

And what to make of that content and the woman behind it? Who can say? Michèle’s refusal to go to the police is explicable as a reaction to the traumatic experience she had with law enforcement in the aftermath of her father’s homicides—becoming a national pariah because you followed your father’s instructions to help destroy the evidence of his crimes would leave its imprint upon anyone. Then again, going to the police might cut short Michèle’s game of cat-and-mouse, played both at work and at home, which would rob Michèle of one of the things she most values: As writer of the game’s rules, she retains a sense of total control. (It is no accident that Michèle’s vocations—publishing and video game production—involve establishing carefully controlled worlds.) Michèle’s actions often seem multi-pronged in their intentions, as when she reveals to Anna her affair with Robert. Given her newly professed focus on honesty and freedom in the aftermath of her father’s suicide, one could see it as an attempt to clear the air, to give Anna peace of mind over the infidelity she suspects. Yet Michèle has hardly seemed inhibited before, and it is hard to ignore that Michèle drops her bomb just as she notices Robert and Anna seeming to reconcile and ready to consummate that reconciliation biblically. Similarly, when Michèle gives Vincent her keys before leaving the launch party with Patrick, one could plausibly read it as a sort of fail-safe against a situation with the potential to get out of hand or as an elaborately indirect method of revenge, a sort of Rube Goldberg device implicating Vincent in Michèle’s violent and aberrant behavior in much the way her father did to her while also casting the self-esteem-challenged Vincent as the hero in a bizarre story. Or one could plausibly read Vincent’s deus ex bludgeon as nothing more than coincidence, a reminder that Michèle is not in control of every variable and, per Patrick’s question (“Why?”), an unnecessary interruption to an equally unnecessary game.

That all of these contradictory and conflicting data points coalesce into a coherent whole is nothing short of miraculous. Huppert gives what is arguably a career-best performance in a career overflowing with highlights. Few are as good at suggesting both strength and brittleness simultaneously, of using minute facial gestures, glances, and evanescent smiles to reveal a vibrant inner life. Although Huppert is as meticulous an actor as exists, she famously prefers not to devote too much time to rehearsal lest her preparation curdle into caricature—which is the perfect fit for Michèle, who in another’s hands could come across as an over-determined, muddled mess as opposed to the intuitive creature Huppert makes her, always behaving with something in mind but not always with full consideration of her actions or their consequences. Most importantly, Huppert brings a deliciously tart, icy wit to Michèle, a humor so strongly imbued by Huppert that she brought the rest of the cast and crew with her, transforming Elle from something more purely dramatic into, against all odds, one of the year’s funniest films. When she laughs loudly, with shock and exasperation and some small note of demented glee, at her mother’s surprise engagement announcement at the Christmas dinner table, it is a cruel moment, as Irène rightly points out, but also hilarious, both an understandable breach of decorum in response to a ludicrous proclamation and an unnecessary, unkind response to something that Michèle should have seen coming and that, in any event, is really none of her business.

All of which is to say that Michèle is human. It is no accident that Verhoeven’s film is titled Elle—the French word for “she,” referring not in this case to all of womankind but to one particular instance thereof. While most of us like to think of ourselves as rational, thoughtful individuals driven by logic and reason and internally coherent, the truth is we are all flailing masses of limbs and selfishness, impulses and idiosyncrasies, likely to be careful one moment and reckless the next, prone to self-justification and rationalization, often following an act of kindness with an act of hostility. We paper over these inconsistencies as best we can, often using the most mundane of defensive strategies—denial, avoidance, self-medication, dissociation. But Michèle—fully an individual, never reduced to a type—has seen these strategies at play all her life and knows their limitations and failures. In a misogynistic world disinclined to respect the boundaries and decisions of women—whether sexual, familial, professional, or otherwise—Michèle scoffs at the behavior of those around her and does exactly what she pleases. Like Buñuel, she has no rage to understand, no need to fill in all the blanks, realizing that this would only make her life more banal. She both accepts and engineers the fundamental mystery of her life, which brings...well, not exactly happiness, though it is not exactly happiness Michèle desires.

To parse Michèle’s motives is to look for reason within chaos—the most natural human impulse, and a path to inexorable frustration. It brings to mind Alice’s response to “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was sorry for the poor oysters.” “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.” “That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.” “But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum. This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—” Michèle is both extraordinarily sympathetic and extraordinarily unpleasant—which, come to think of it, describes pretty much all of us.

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