Wednesday 8 March 2017

Dangerous games: "Elle"

In the two decades since the glittering folly that was 1995's Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven has found himself overtaken by the jocose Lars von Trier as world cinema's premier wind-up merchant. British viewers last encountered Verhoeven with his prickly WW2 drama Black Book, back in 2006; since then, he's mostly been in retreat, plotting and scheming and waiting for the project that might allow him an even better poke at the chattering classes. With Elle, an adaptation of the French novelist Philippe Djian's "Oh...", he appears to have found it: very much constructed for an era in which everyone from the lowliest Brexiteer to the leader of the free world is keen to thrust their hot takes upon you, the film has already provoked that estimable organ Sight & Sound into the rare if not unprecedented move of running pro- and anti- reviews alongside one another, a gesture that certainly wasn't extended to Showgirls upon first release. (That film, of course, didn't come with subtitles.) Some measure of circumspection would indeed appear advisable: this is, after all, a comedy about a woman who is raped and then barely seems to countenance the fact.

To their credit, Djian, Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke strive wherever possible to develop this premise. Most films, even the higher-minded ones, tend to render their depictions of rape as major setpieces; Elle all but throws its assault away as a sound effect before the fade in. The film's real interest lies in following Isabelle Huppert's Michèle Leblanc, modern Parisian career woman, as she cleans up - taking a very chic mirrored dustpan and brush to the crockery shattered during the attack, getting her locks changed, taking out the trash - and goes about her daily business as the head of a company making violent, tentacle porn video games. (Implication: rape culture is everywhere, and unavoidable.) It's only after she begins receiving taunting texts from her attacker that she's roused to resolve whodunnit - yet even here, her response is more practical-rational (you might say traditionally masculine, almost Holmesian) than emotional. Elle's altogether chilly base gag posits that human relations in general are so funny-strange/funny-haha that the idea of a man breaking into your house to have his way with you really isn't worth getting het up about; already, you can see why the film has made some viewers' blood boil.

Nevertheless, there's enough going on here for others to have claimed Elle as a quietly radical, perhaps even feminist text. Indirectly, the film does propose a new way of dealing with trauma, which is not to submit to it. After Michèle casually lets slip the news to her nearest and dearest ("I guess I was raped"), it soon becomes clear nobody else in the room is able to handle it; unlike all these sensitive snowflakes who maintain that a woman should make a fuss about rape, this female Bartleby insists she'd rather not, a choice that immediately transforms her into a more active figure than cinema's usual array of victims. She is, unlike the crockery, unbreakable. At this point, one feels compelled to note it is very easy for an entertainment (and especially an entertainment arrived at by three men) to propose this - and Elle is, undeniably, an entertainment, made for the majority of us who haven't been sexually assaulted rather than the minority who have, so determined to dress and thereby class up its underlying rape-revenge tropes that it frequently tips over into displays of bourgeois banality: dinner parties, fancy restaurants, well-dressed interiors. (The whole runs to two hours ten minutes, its privilege going thoroughly unchecked.)

Some of the risk, in other words, has been cushioned away. My issue with Elle as the grand provocation some have claimed it as is its decision to foreground a character who is so much the anomaly - to appropriate a hashtag de nos jours, so clearly #NotAllWomen - that we might feel comfortable around her, and not concern ourselves unduly about her general wellbeing. That Michèle should be played by Huppert with her usual committed sangfroid would be enough to establish her as somehow Other (hell, we think, if she handled what Haneke and Elfriede Jelinek had to throw at her in 2001's The Piano Teacher, she can surely survive this); a midfilm revelation about the character's parentage, suggesting she might be used to evincing some degree of detachment from the myriad brutalities of life, therefore feels like the gilding of an oddly singular and atypical lily. Elle would be a far chancier proposition if Michèle felt like a real, bruisable, flesh-and-blood woman, played by a less iconic performer, who might be seen to react to two or three of the developments Huppert maintains a strict, Keaton-ish pokerface throughout. (It isn't just that Michèle doesn't react to the rape that makes her such a strange one; it's that she doesn't react to anything.)

The idea of rape-as-slapstick negotiated by a semi-sociopathic heroine - she doesn't kill, but she'll be damned if she'll put the recycling in the right bin - yields occasional comic notes: Verhoeven wants us to be amused or amazed by the damage this tiny, resolute creature can herself inflict upon the possessions, relationships and bodies of those around her, and up to a point, I was, while remaining uncertain as to whether Verhoeven was celebrating Michèle's strength and resilience, or making her the punchline of this particular joke. When her mother (Judith Magre) suffers a heart attack, Michèle asks the understandably alarmed doctor "Is she making it up?"; her mental replays of the attack - arguably more disconcerting than the attack itself - reprogram the action into headsmashing fantasy and an eventual triumph, in a way X-Box habituees may well recognise. Here, the heroine appears both her father's child and the distractible product of her times, drawn to the flickering image on a TV screen as her own maman succumbs to tachycardia. Here, too, Elle is at its least feminist, yet most interesting - in that it finally seems to be offering a diagnosis of some wider (non-gendered) social malaise, rather than just a cleverly polished, increasingly thin gag.

Djian has form with mentally unstable women - his 1986 novel 37.2 Le Matin served as the basis for Jean-Jacques Beineix's film Betty Blue, enduring bonkbuster of the cinema du look - yet in Verhoeven-land even this fact may be a red herring: Elle finally shapes up as one vast gaping pitfall of a movie, and any reaction to it is liable to betray more about the beholder than it does about its director's methods or motives. (Better, perhaps, to make like Michèle Leblanc, and keep your mouth shut.) Such flagrant cynicism is bracing, adult, and rarely aired in today's generally happy-clappy arthouses; it's reasonably fun to dip a toe into, and Huppert's Oscar nomination will almost certainly get Verhoeven back on the studio radar, which should cheer his many cinephile admirers. Yet Elle often seemed to me to be riffing on or revelling in the finer points of rape culture, rather than doing anything substantial to repel it - you can admire the sophistry it brings to bear on an issue of brute force, but ultimately it may only be good for the beleaguered beancounters at the Picturehouse and the Curzon. That Elle seems likely to turn rape into boffo box office would in itself be enough to land it on any list of the year's most problematic movies; you might take it as a sign of how topsy-turvy and recto-verso the world now is that it was made with exactly that intention.

Elle opens in selected cinemas from Friday.     

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