I haven’t watched a film rated 18 since A Clockwork Orange, which disturbed me in exactly the same way as Paul Verhoeven’s newly released Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert. Both contain real-time scenes involving men breaking into middle-aged women's houses and sexually assaulting them. No doubt, both films are brilliant; so brilliant that critics don’t feel comfortable criticising them – oh, because cinema should shock and thrill, as Hitchcock said: "Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare." So if you’re offended, then you just don’t get it. You, my friend, lack sophistication.
The second I left the cinema last night after watching Elle, I googled “Elle rape scene”, expecting to be in some way reassured by dozens of articles calling out Verhoeven’s treatment of rape as offensive. Surely, I thought, someone has written something addressing the issue in this film. Alas, not much; not much but a mild-mannered chat on YouTube channel What The Flick?! between three Americans who describe Verhoeven as “lurid” and “shocking” in the same sentence as “bold”, “fearless” and “brave”. And the big Guardian interview? It quotes Verhoeven saying: “I think I’ll have to do something that makes people hate me again. To my astonishment, there isn’t much controversy yet. If they attack it, they would not attack style – they would attack the moral content. It’s possible. If you want to look at it in a negative way, you can find moments to say, ‘Well, wait a moment.’”
Quite right, Sir, the style is second to none, but I have to attack the moral twist. Here’s what we’re dealing with:
Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle, the daughter of a psychopath who murdered 27 people, six dogs and two cats with a butcher’s mallet in one night when Michèle was 10 years old. Michèle is recounting these details many years later to her neighbour at a Christmas party at her house. She is separated from her husband, who describes her, affectionately, as “dangerous”; she’s having a flippant affair with her best friend’s husband, who she wanks off into a dustbin when the best friend isn’t looking; and then there’s her young neighbour, who she is flirting with at this party, massaging his crotch with her foot under the table at which his sweet Christian wife is also sat. Michèle is a fearless, successful, beautiful woman who takes no prisoners as the founder of a company that makes sexual fantasy video games, and she is pissed off with one of her many young male employees for not making the “orgasmic convulsions” realistic enough in the animation.
If this were the extent of the film, it would be enough; it would make a powerful statement about the post-feminist woman who does not need to be nice. But that’s just the backdrop to the central plotline which is that, in the opening scene, Michèle is sexually assaulted and beaten by a younger man wearing a ski mask who has forced entry into her home. Again, this would be enough, with her seeking revenge and eventually overpowering him, but the revenge is given a further twist in that this complex anti-heroine, who has found little sexual satisfaction with lovers, consents to being raped as part of a cat-and-mouse sex game. The narrative changes from rape to a rape fetish that is hers as much as his; he wants to rape her and, deep down, she wants him to rape her.
Verhoeven has deflected any moral responsibility to Philippe Djian, the author of the book Oh… on which the film is based, in a classic don’t-shoot-the-messenger swipe. Verhoeven has also said that Michèle is by no means representative of all women; she is just one unconventional woman, so it shouldn’t cause offence. And who said film or art had any moral obligation? I know, but still. I’m trying not to be so simplistic as to say that a man can’t write a book about a woman’s rape fetish, or that the book shouldn’t be adapted for film by a man (David Birke), or that a third man shouldn’t direct the film about a woman’s rape fetish – the history of men fetishising women is too long, and I should have mentioned Vladimir Nabokov sooner. But I can’t forgive any of these artistic impressions, however rich or profound they are. And I am trying not to be so simplistic as to say that one of the reasons I’m personally offended is that a few years ago, my family friend – an attractive, successful, middle-aged woman – was raped in startlingly similar circumstances, in the early evening when she got home from work, by a young man who forced entry at her door. She fought him, and died of her injuries the following day. These are tried-and-tested objections but, I think, to suggest that a woman (this woman or any woman) who has been raped, in some way desired that rape, is too damaging. I don’t care how artistic or provocative a director thinks he has to be in order to be relevant again, it is not his artistic licence to turn sexual assault into a woman's fetish, no matter how compelling the style.
Then there’s Isabelle Huppert, the saving grace of it all and the other reason people are having trouble following through on any criticism, inserting a bespoke “Oh but Isabelle Huppert!” template caveat into every critique. How can a film starring Isabelle Huppert, the captivating, offbeat actor who should have won the Oscar because in this she has created one of the most chilling and unrelatable characters we’ve seen on screen for a long time, be anything other than wonderful? Huppert is faultless, surprising and truly irreverent in a world where nothing much is. Her performance is almost enough to detract.
“No other actor could have pulled it off”, says The Guardian’s latest article on the film. Verhoeven’s first choice for the lead was Nicole Kidman. Then, it would have been an American film. Then, it would have stood no chance against the critics. French film has always got away with doing what no British or American film would dare, and it is why the French don’t rate British and American films. We know the French do sex scenes better; I disagree that they do rape better.
At last, there’s the implication that our protagonist Michèle is the true predator; after all, she ends up directing her own rape and she is the one left standing. Could this be an over-the-top, double-bluff message of female power? Does implying that if women had the power, they would be sexually violent, make a post-feminist statement? Not even Verhoeven is convinced by this argument, telling the LA Times: “The movie doesn’t say that, the movie doesn’t make any moral point. The movie on purpose leaves it to the audience.”
In that case, I take offence.