(2016, Paul Verhoeven)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Sony Pictures]
A loud, resounding "no". ELLE is a fantastically difficult movie to write about because everything about it refuses to be imprisoned with definition, comprehension or sense. Isabelle Huppert's Michele, a character who rejects her status as a victim, casually cleans up the mess left behind after a masked attacker breaks open her windows and rapes her inside her own house. She dumps her ripped clothes in the trash and draws a bubble bath. She calmly sweeps away the reddened foam (from her injuries) like she was sloshing away stray hair. When her son comes over for dinner, she lies and tells him the bruise on her face is from a bike accident. "I thought you never ride that thing," he asks. "That's why," she answers. A few days later she meets her friends and ex-husband at a restaurant where she tells everyone about her assault in a way that seems like she's talking about an unsuccessful job application - slightly embarrassed but eager to move on. Immediately after this announcement, the waiter convivially walks over with a bottle of champagne in hand, ready to be popped. It's a touch of comedy that Michele herself would have designed into the situation.
Michele never becomes a victim because she refuses to suffer and instead, channels her energies into establishing and maintaining a sense of control. Michele, even in moments where she appears vulnerable or humiliated, is actually in complete control. You realise this when Huppert summons up small, almost imperceptible smiles (or sneers). She navigates the world as if she has already seen the worst the universe has to offer and that nothing fazes her. In a way this is true. Her background story is revealed to be a gruesome one. Her father (a Christian fundamentalist) is in prison for the mass murder of innocent people (including children). Michele, too, was a child when it happened and there is a suggestion that she was complicit. This detail about her life complicates an already complicated woman. In thrillers like these, backstories are told to explain why characters are the way they are but here, it arouses even more questions.
In one scene during a Christmas dinner party, while everyone else is watching the holiday mass next door, Michele recounts the story of her father's heinous acts in repulsing detail to her neighbour. Again, the way she does it is completely inappropriate. It almost sounds like she is telling a funny joke, or a distant funny memory - maybe to her it is?
Verhoeven, Hupppert and the screenwriters build a world of misalignment. Nothing here makes sense. This is a world of sexual taboos, incomprehensible murders, indifference where there should be none and people doing things they shouldn't be doing. Amidst all this, Michele is at the centre of it all. The queen of inappropriateness. The woman who not only refuses to be confined by societal expectations (both of her gender and victimhood) but also sneers at it. Shoos it away like an irritating mosquito before swatting it to death.
In her book Victims and victimhood, Trudy Govier outlines the four common attitudes towards victims: silence, blame, defererence (or honour) and agency. Michele's character doesn't let herself be defined under these terms and even questions them. She breaks her silence by telling her friends but does so in a way that dissolves any alarm or distress from them. She is dismissive of her suffering by not acknowledging its existence.
As for blame, she doesn't dwell on it. Instead she becomes proactive: by arming herself and seeks out the perpetrator herself. On deference, Govier states that "victims are innocent persons damaged by the things done to them, sufferers and not blameworthy agents, human beings in need of attention and resources directed to their repair. These convictions underlie the common contemporary attitude of deference towards its victims." Michele never lets herself appear damaged or in need of repair, in fact she commits actions later on in the film that indicates she might relish this state both in herself, the people around her and the world at large.
She purposely backs up to her husband's car and damages it. She is the boss of a company that produces video games of a misogynistic and violent nature - the very cultural product that leads to crimes that was perpetuated towards her. We are in deference to Michele not because she is a victim, but the opposite. She is the one to be feared. She's not a victim because she is always the one in control, and the one with power.
In Govier's book, she talks about Nils Christie satiric definition of an ideal victim. The ideal victim is "a person who would be likely to elicit the most public sympathy after an attack. She would be vulnerable, having done something virtuous and attacked by someone more powerful who used his power to wrong her so as to pursue his own evil purposes." Michele is not an ideal victim. In fact, nothing in this film comes close to being ideal. The film satisfies by being unsatisfying to our conception of how things and people should be. It posits bafflement as a completely legitimate (or only) response and in so doing, asks questions about the ways we perceive victims and victimhood.