'Elle' is the latest by director Paul Verhoeven.

click to enlarge DEFIANT, DISCONNECTED: Michèle, played by Isabelle Huppert in "Elle."
  • DEFIANT, DISCONNECTED: Michèle, played by Isabelle Huppert in "Elle."

The French-language movie "Elle" opens with the main character, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), being raped in her home by a man in a ski mask. After he leaves, she sweeps up the teacups that had been broken in the struggle, throws her clothes into the trash and takes a bath. Far from exhibiting signs of trauma or shame, she seems to treat this brutal assault as an inconvenience. When next we see her, she is railing against the programmers (overwhelmingly male) at the video game company she runs for their failure to give players the visceral experience of disemboweling enemies. It is a rather jarring transition. When Michèle does open up about the rape, it is to her ex-husband and close friends over the dinner table. While everyone else is horrified, Michèle attaches greater importance to the menu.

Far from exhibiting the feminine virtues we expect of our heroines (or, at least, expect them to learn), Michèle is as "secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster," to borrow from Charles Dickens' description of Ebenezer Scrooge. She is surrounded by people with whom she never truly connects: the husband of her best friend and business partner, with whom she is having an affair; her mother, who constantly urges Michèle to go see her father in prison; her unambitious son and his pregnant, controlling girlfriend; and the neighbor across the street for whom she is developing an erotic fixation. The reasons that she has difficulty truly relating to other people are the same reasons that she never considered calling the police after the rape, and thus each one of these separate threads is heavily imprinted by that first, brutal scene. Anytime the camera falls upon the figure of a man, we viewers are left wondering, "Is he the one? Or is this not that kind of movie?"

The sociologist Christopher Powell recently pointed out that most widely distributed films are either aristocratic or capitalistic fantasies: "Aristocratic fantasies revolve around the idea that transcendence comes from superior might and/or virtue, which is granted by affiliation to the 'traditional' social order. Capitalist fantasies revolve around the idea that transcendence comes from superior personal skill and/or willpower, which is granted by the unique individuality of a person." Director Paul Verhoeven spent some time in the 1980s and 1990s knocking about Hollywood and doing films like "RoboCop" and "Total Recall," and his awareness of the expectations of such fantasies is exquisitely showcased in "Elle." 

"Elle" has all the trappings of a revenge drama, with Michèle working patiently to uncover the identity of the man who raped her. But at times, the movie also threatens to become a tale about family secrets and confronting the past. We also have the stories of a female business leader trying to prove her worth in a male-dominated field, a distant mother struggling to relate to her wayward son, and a woman whose passion threatens the relationships of those closest to her. Verhoeven ably provokes our expectations throughout, and by so doing creates a constant burn of tension. We wait breathlessly to discover exactly what kind of film we are watching: When Michèle makes a deliberate hash of parallel parking, taking the bumper off the car behind her, is she the victimized woman lashing out at the world or the privileged entrepreneur careless of others' property? 

Maybe neither, maybe both. But for a movie that opens with the ultimate violation, this sure is a perfect exercise in subtlety, turning upon those smaller moments when the universe can spin off in a dozen different directions — the defiant glare or the smile from across a crowded room. Just as trauma (against our expectations) does not define this movie, so it does not define its protagonist. In the end, Michèle remains Michèle, an achievement so profound we could almost miss it while waiting to see what she, and this film, will become.


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