Elle programme note

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Please note this article contains spoilers and strong language 

‘Morality is kindly requested to step off.’[1]

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) is a film directed by a man, from a man’s screenplay, derived from a novel written by a man. Its depiction of one women’s atypical (if such a term is useful) reaction to a violent sexual assault has been championed as ‘delectably twisted’[2], ‘deliciously subversive’[3], ‘demented and exhilarating’[4], but also described as ‘enormously problematic’.[5] Seemingly predestined to court controversy for its often comic tone, it’s also been described as ‘the most empowering "Rape Movie" ever made’[6].

Elle is based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh... (2012). Djian’s work is perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences of Betty Blue (dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986), based upon his work 37˚2 le Matin (1985) and the first of five screen adaptations of his work to date. Often described as a ‘rock writer’ (a label he resists: ‘Je déteste l’étiquette d’écrivain rock!’[7]), he has described the appeal of writing Oh… in terms of the challenge (‘I wanted to speak in the place of a woman…because it seemed impossible.’) and its transgression (‘If we can no longer approach this mixture of strength and weakness in a female character, then what can we can talk about?’). ‘I have a real feminine side,’ the author concludes, ‘and I want him to speak.’[8]

Verhoeven originally planned to transpose the novel’s action to the US, hiring American writer David Birke and intending to work with an entirely American cast. Some superficial changes were made almost immediately. Verhoeven’s daughter, for example, suggested their main character should work in video games, rather than run a television company, fulfilling the director’s desire for a more visual context. However, according to Verhoeven, he and producer Ben Saïd quickly realised ‘no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie.’[9]

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Luckily, Isabelle Huppert was ‘waiting in the wings’[10], having previously met with Djian to discuss what would become the film’s source novel. And, happily, the author had told the actress then that ‘he hadn’t written it for [her], but that he had [her] in mind at various moments during the writing of the novel.’ Huppert’s character, Michèle, ‘is a woman who doesn’t fall. Never. She is many and varied: cynical, generous, endearing, cold, commendable, independent, dependent, perspicacious.’

Huppert, who insists Elle is a ‘fairy tale’ above all, found the director and author to be natural bedfellows. ‘By some sort of sleight of hand,’ she suggests, ‘they make us take things at face value, without trying to reposition them in a psychological or overly emotive context.’ This fairy tale approach, Huppert argues, ‘allows for a kind of abruptness - there’s no need to explain or justify things.’ She continues:

‘Fairy tale leads to fantasy. The effect of reality is modified, altered. In a fairy tale, everything is exaggerated, so anything is possible. Morality is kindly requested to step off. A game is played out between Michèle and her rapist, and it’s her choice.’[11]

It’s not a stance, it’s fair to say, which persuades everyone. Critic Candice Frederick argues that Huppert’s character Michèle is simply ‘a vehicle of anti-man hate disguised as feminism that incites fear and intimidation in her male counterparts. Huppert is the perfect vessel to highlight a very real and very vile perspective men have, but validating this perspective is enormously problematic.’[12]

For Djian, ‘It’s frightening because people don’t like women to feel free. She wants to react how she likes without following societal codes.’[13] Huppert suggests the key to Elle is in the many sides to Michèle’s character, the many roles she plays. ‘That this woman is defined in so many ways, it makes her a very complete human being. She is not defined only by rape and the rapist. She is new. A post-feminist heroine.’[14]

And Verhoeven, a director the subtler depths of whose work has often been initially misunderstood or underappreciated only to be later reevaluated - see RoboCop (1987) or Starship Troopers (1997) - remains vehement. ‘It’s a story, not real life,’ he insists, ‘nor a philosophical vision of women! This particular woman acts that way, which doesn’t mean that all women will or should act that way.’[15] As critic Julia Felsenthal has written, ‘It’s an extreme vision, and, we should note, it’s the vision of an old white guy. But it’s also catharsis for a troubling time. In Elle, pussy grabs back, and the future truly is female.’[16]

Sean Welsh

[1] Isabelle Huppert, Elle production notes

[2] Lisa Nesselson, Elle review for Screendaily.com, 21/05/16 (http://www.screendaily.com/reviews/elle-cannes-review/5103208.article accessed 07/03/17)

[3] Aubrey Page, ‘Aubrey’s Top 10 Films of 2016’, Collider.com 28/12/16 (http://collider.com/best-films-of-2016/ accessed 07/03/17)

[4] Sheila O’Malley, Elle review for Rogerebert.com, 11/11/16 (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/elle-2016 accessed 07/03/17)

[5] Candice Frederick, ‘The Great Debate: What Patriarchal Feminism Looks Like’, Birth. Movies. Death. 22/11/16 (http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/11/22/the-great-debate-elle accessed 07/03/17)

[6] Leslie Felperin, ‘Critic's Notebook: Why Cannes' Elle is the Most Empowering "Rape Movie" Ever Made’, The Hollywood Reporter, 22/05/17 (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/critics-notebook-why-cannes-elle-896334 accessed 07/03/17)

[7] Philippe Djian, interviewed by Nelly Kaprièlian for Les Inrockuptibles, 28/08/2012 (http://www.lesinrocks.com/2012/08/28/livres/philippe-djian-dans-la-vie-on-nest-jamais-loin-de-basculer-11288558/ accessed 07/03/17)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Paul Verhoeven, Elle production notes

[10] David Birke, interviewed by Sonia Shechet Epstein for Sloan Science & Film (http://scienceandfilm.org/articles/2824/interview-with-david-birke-writer-of-paul-verhoevens-elle accessed 07/03/17)

[11] Isabelle Huppert, Elle production notes

[12] Candice Frederick, ‘The Great Debate: What Patriarchal Feminism Looks Like’, Birth. Movies. Death. 22/11/16 (http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/11/22/the-great-debate-elle accessed 07/03/17)

[13] Philippe Djian, as quoted by Benjamin Lee for The Observer, 21/05/17 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/21/isabelle-huppert-elle-rape-cannes accessed 07/03/17)

[14] Isabelle Huppert, as interviewed by Danny Leigh for The Guardian, 23/02/17 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/23/isabelle-huppert-oscar-nomination-rape-revenge-elle accessed 07/03/17)

[15] Paul Verhoeven, Elle production notes

[16] Julia Felsenthal, ‘In Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the Future Is Female’  (http://www.vogue.com/article/elle-paul-verhoeven-review-future-female accessed 07/03/17)

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