Our society talks around rape, but can’t talk about it honestly. From childhood, girls are taught a list of rules to avoid unspecified danger: don’t wear that dress, don’t go out after dark, and, as a judge in Manchester said last week, don’t drink. In recent years, an increasingly fierce feminist discourse, fuelled by social media, has tried to point out that sexual violence in some form is an incredibly common experience for women, caused not by the victims’ behaviour, but by a culture which abets and covers up these crimes. But despite people across the political spectrum agreeing that sexual violence is horrifying, high-profile accusations weren’t enough to stop a man from being voted President of the United States or winner of the Best Actor Oscar.
Into this maelstrom steps Elle, a film seemingly designed to kick the hornets’ nest. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker best known for iconic Hollywood schlock such as Total Recall, Starship Troopers and, er, Showgirls, it opens with screams and groans over a black screen. A masked intruder in Michèle (Isabelle Huppert)’s chi-chi Paris home is violently raping her.
Elle seems weirdly similar to this year’s BBC drama Apple Tree Yard. But that series dwelled on Emily Watson’s pain, luxuriating in all the scenes that have become clichés in depicting a rape victim’s trauma – the weeping fits, the terror of leaving the house, the rage at complacent acquaintances. In contrast, Elle never gives us Michèle’s moment of breakdown. She doesn’t want to talk to the police because of violent events in her past, and she knows that being a woman in the world is too difficult, professionally and personally, and has cost too much to allow her to fall now. She goes about her life as she did before. She is coolly condescending to her son and ex-husband. She runs a video game company with her best friend, where she rules her all-male staff with a rod of iron. It is here that Michèle comes to suspect that the rapist may be someone he knows. A woman who refuses to apologise for her power or success stirs up irrational hatred in some men. This was another way the film reminded me of the events of November 8th 2016.
Huppert pulls off the remarkable feat keeping Michèle’s composed mask in place, while also making it plain to the audience how many emotions are swirling beneath it. This nonchalance leads to a rich vein of black comedy – the audience I was with shifted from nervous, uncomfortable laughter to outright guffaws as the film made savage fun, not of rape, but of polite society’s many sexual neuroses.
The film risks accusations of treating rape lightly, but for me personally, it cleaved closer to my experiences than a shot of a woman crying and hyperventilating. I was told since childhood how to avoid sexual assault, but I didn’t receive any advice on how I should react when I was assaulted anyway. So I absorbed it into my life. On the rare occasions when I talked about it, it was as a joke. For some time, my profile picture on social media and online dating sites was a picture taken hours after the assault – because I look good and I’m smiling.
Even more insidiously, Elle presents the rape as an extreme form of everyday violence and sexism – a continuation of everyday society, not an aberration. Through a series of jarring cuts, the film introduces shots of violation in the everyday – tentacled monsters impaling women in Michèle’s video game, a needle inserted in her arm as she practically gets STI testing, new locks being drilled onto her doors. Her business partner’s husband, with whom she is having an affair, turns up in her office and, despite knowing about the rape, demands a hand job. Michèle places a wastepaper basket underneath him – a visual equivalence to a scene following the rape where she threw broken china in the bin. All the men in the film are brutish to some degree, and the intruder’s ski mask becomes significant – Michèle’s attacker could be anyone she knows.
Despite the omnipresent misogyny, and the increasing danger as the rapist continues to stalk Michèle, she stays defiant. One of the film’s many bold strokes is reusing Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ in a bid to challenge Trainspotting as the film most associated with that song. Michèle isn’t always ‘likeable’, but that’s a boring criteria for judging a character. Her lust for life drives her to perverse actions in order to survive and thrive. Elle’s unsettling neutrality about rape is the key to its success. It doesn’t present it as an unexplainable tragedy happening to a faceless victim, but as something terrible happening to a fully-developed character. Watching her draw on all her inner resources to overcome it is mesmerising.