There is no warning – nothing. It just happens. A black screen; a woman’s muffled screams coupled with a man grunting. And this is before we see a cat intently watching while her mistress is being brutally raped by a masked man. And if you are already disturbed, take this – it isn’t the rape, it is how she deals with it that is even more haunting.
When ‘Elle’ premièred at Cannes this year, it was dubbed in media-circles as a rape comedy. A lot of feminists and activists were understandably be offended by this terminology; however, they can take solace in the fact the it isn’t just rape that this movie “trivializes”, it is almost everything – from stalking to murder. And while the ramifications of the movie’s socio-political statement are debatable, what isn’t is its cinematic brilliance.
Helmed by the enigmatic Dutch filmmaker Pual Verhoeven, ‘Elle’ follows the life of a rich, successful businesswoman, Michele Le Blanc who is raped in her home by an unknown assailant. Acting as if nothing happened, she returns to her everyday life and problems – dealing with her adult son and his girlfriend, the launch of her company’s new video game, her sex-obsessed mother and a nondescript affair with her best friend’s husband. And above all, she is also the daughter of an incarcerated notorious killer, who has his parole hearing coming up. In the midst of all the turmoil around her, she appears unfettered, and develops a bizarre obsession with her assailant; playing a dangerous cat and mouse game that could very well destroy her. It is almost as if we are the only ones who care about her; even her friends are uncharacteristically nonchalant when she makes a casual mention of her assault to them.
Michele is a fascinating woman; yet there is a strange soap-opera-esque quality to her life; everything is happening at once. And it could have all gone south had it not been for Isabelle Huppert, who brings Michele to life in one of the finest cinematic performances in recent years. In portraying one of the most complex characterizations of a rape-victim in cinema history, Huppert brings a certain understated emotional undercurrent, which complements her smart, fearless exterior. Michele has nightmares about her assailant, but she isn’t fazed by them; rather she imagines killing him. She doesn’t allow her rape to take control of her life; she is still sexually active, and as emotionally distant as she has always been. In fact, Verhoeven makes a concerted effort to drive home the point that Michele is not a victim; she is as much a part and parcel of a society that fetishes rape-culture and sexual objectification. She is as guilty as her assailant.
Now, Paul Verhoeven is not the kind of guy I would have trusted with handling a thriller about a rape-victim; his filmography oscillating between entertaining erotic-thrillers like ‘Basic Instinct’ and flat out trash like ‘Showgirls’. But guess what, the veteran manages to pull it off, and how! Much like Michael Haneke’s brilliant ‘Funny Games’, the audience is warned quite early on that this isn’t gonna be an easy ride; that beneath the light-hearted façade that the movie wears, it is as haunting and disturbing as anything out there. Aghast, we continue watching as ‘Elle’ delves deeper into our own subconscious voyeuristic fetishes and paranoia; completely mesmerized by its seductive brilliance.
Few movies have ever made me feel the way ‘Elle’ has; confused, offended and mesmerized. In fact, ‘Elle’ borrows its themes heavily from Sam Pekinpah’s controversial ‘Straw Dogs’ and David Lynch’s haunting ‘Blue Velvet’. All three of them have unconventional yet brilliant female characterizations while being a compelling indictment of the machismo chauvinism that plagues our social structure. Pekinpah’s Amy, Lynch’s Dorothy and Verhoeven’s Michele are very different women, yet they are all bound by the shackles of their shared gender identities. However, none of them are victims; no, they are a part of the very system, perpetuating a vicious cycle of cause and effect.
Verhoeven has made it perfectly clear in numerous media appearances that ‘Elle’ is not a movie about a rape victim accepting her rapist. It would be the most obvious inference, but ‘Elle’ isn’t as black and white, and nothing is as simple or apparent as it seems. To me, ‘Elle’ is the story of a woman whose rape frees her; it liberates her from the shackles that bound her existence and empowers her to be the woman she wants to be.
To anyone who says cinema is dead, this year’s movies are a fitting riposte. From Yorgos Lanthomos’ ‘The Lobster’ to ‘Elle’, there is no dearth of original and imaginative works of cinematic art; you just have to look closer.
While there are many more movies I am looking forward to, I have no hesitation in proclaiming that ‘Elle’ is the best movie I’ve seen this year. In fact, it just might be the finest movie that I’ve seen in the past two years; it is the kind of seductively haunting and wickedly provocative cinema that will keep you thinking about it for years to come. Don’t miss it!