Do you want to spend two hours and ten minutes watching an unpleasant movie about unpleasant people? The movie “Elle” is not about the French magazine; it is in French and deals with one woman’s rape and her revenge. Yet her revenge is more cerebral than visceral and you get to re-live the rape several times.
We’re introduced to the rape against a black screen. First we hear a crash and crackle of breaking glass. Then there’s a fist hitting flesh. Grunts and groans. Before we see the rape, we see the watchful eyes of a cat who doesn’t seem particularly distressed. The cat watches a man dressed in black with a black ski mask that obscures all except his eyes. The man is raping a middle-aged woman. He finishes and leaves her.
The woman, Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), gets up, throws away her clothes and takes a bubble bath during which blood collects in the white foam above her obscured vagina. She dresses before ordering sushi for her hapless adult son who arrives in need of money.
Michèle has reasons for not approaching the police. She’s dealt with them before and her dark past is hinted at later when a woman recognizes her at a cafe and throws food at her.
Michèle remains stoic. She runs her own video game company that is currently working on a violent game where women are potentially objectified and brutalized. Her employees hate her. Someone even steals some of the program to make a sample clip of the beast raping her. Is this related to her actual assault?
Her mother gleefully has a much younger lover whom she intends to marry. Michèle hasn’t spoken to her father for decades. She’s divorced and covertly spiteful. She’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband. The only likable character is Michèle’s cat that oddly disappears in the last part of the film. Overall, it seems a decidedly male view of rape, one that seems to downplay any negative effect upon the victim and almost suggests that it can be enjoyable. The only helpful thought I had at the end was: A dog is better than a cat.
“Elle” is based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 Prix Interallié-winning novel “Oh.” The script is written by David Birke. This is director Paul Verhoeven’s first French language movie.
“Elle” won the International Cinephile Society Grand Prix award at Cannes. It premiered in the U.S. in September at the Fantastic Fest and played at AFI FEST on 13 Nov. 2016. In French with English subtitles.