Finally, Montanans get a chance to see one of the most provocative, sexy and complex films of 2016. In Elle, Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a formidable video game designer both resilient and mutable. It's the best female performance of the year, and her Academy Award nomination almost (but not quite) makes up for the film's egregious snub in the best foreign film category. (I've only seen one of the five nominated films so far, but that's enough to justify my outrage. Is Elle better than Sweden's sentimental opus A Man Called Ove? The answer, unequivocally, is yes.)
When I was a kid, I thought getting raped meant that a strange man pulled you into an alley and slashed away at your clothes with a razor blade. I must have linked the verbs rape and rip—a tame and helpful definition for a child who watched too many movies, but wasn't ready to digest sex yet. I mention this because Elle opens with a rape scene that feels almost as contrived as my simplistic childhood understanding. Michèle is alone in her kitchen, minding her own business, when a masked man breaks in, rips open her blouse and has his way with her. Is this a nightmare, a rape fantasy or both? And how could that be?
It's so much the stuff of nightmares that it feels staged, and that only makes it worse.
The film is directed by Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch filmmaker with one of the most inconsistent track records around. This is the mastermind behind tightly wound classics like Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). He's also responsible for smutty, lesser pictures like Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1997). Basic Instinct has its moments and could have been great (focus groups had a heavy hand in influencing the final cut, or so the legend goes), while Showgirls mostly deserves its terrible reputation. It's supposed to be erotic, but the sex scenes feel shameful and oddly frantic.
With Elle, Verhoeven once again has his head on straight. By making a film that's both sexy and violent, he's swimming in dangerous waters, and that makes for a thrilling emotional experience for viewers. In Michèle, we have a character with a tragic past that informs her present in strange and fascinating ways.
She doesn't cry or call the police, for example, but she's not passive, either. She gets tested for STDs and purchases mace and an ax. (It's more menacing than a gun—this is a woman who's prepared to get her hands dirty.) When the rapist continues to taunt her with text messages and other lewd clues, all the men in her life become suspects, which makes us, the viewers, look for the worst in all of them.
Elle was originally intended to be an American film. In interviews, Verhoeven says he eventually chose to set the story in France, with French characters, when it became clear to him that U.S. distributors didn't want to touch the film's provocative material. If that's the case, I suspect it's because Michèle doesn't react to rape the way she's supposed to, because she isn't always nice, and—here's the real elephant in the room—it's not OK to get off on sex that isn't consensual.
American culture is in a bizarre place right now, with artists falling over themselves to signal their virtue. Are you on the side of women's rights or are you against? Michèle doesn't fit in that dichotomy. She's cunning and misogynistic, and her behavior makes us uncomfortable. Making this a French story gives American audiences just enough distance to wash our hands of the uncomfortable bits.
Great cinema requires courage, and it bugs me that U.S. distributors might have rejected this story out of fear. When we feel the need to qualify off-color art with trigger warnings and apologies—or worse, to avoid uncomfortable topics altogether—I think we've gone too far. This should have been an American movie.
Elle opens at the Roxy Fri., Feb. 3.