Three film critics take on the thriller
ON Sunday evening, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will decide whether Isabelle Huppert will nab an Oscar for her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The thriller, which opened to wide acclaim in France and Germany last spring, was released in U.S. theaters just a few days after Trump’s election. The New Inquiry invited three feminist film critics to respond to the movie.
There are more second acts for men thrust dramatically into a media spotlight than there are for women, yet the old tape of a woman’s infamy is more likely to be played in perpetuity. The dichotomy is easiest to spot in celebrity tabloids and their relations, like punditry and the evening news. These attenuations of women whose one chance to be reborn is as the reiteration of single mistake--or the public’s supposition of one--often have a sexual component, as in the case of JonBenet Ramsey (the innocent), Lorena Bobbitt (the castrator), and Monica Lewinsky (the slut).
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle focuses on the private life of Michèle Leblanc, a woman who from a young age has been an object of media-sickened fantasy and intrigue. When she was ten, so the story goes, her father went door-to-door in his French cul-de-sac murdering neighbors. He then returned home and asked Michèle to help him burn down their house. Journalists arriving at the scene of this explosive crime found a little girl with a brutal stare standing in the ruins of her childhood home. This “iconic” photograph of Michèle runs regularly on the news for the next three decades, and--because she is pretty, young, and fierce--Michèle comes to be despised, even blamed, for her father’s actions. So pronounced is the media brainwashing in association with this crime that Michèle even has to remind her best friend, who works with her at a video game design firm in Paris, that she was also one of its victims.
Though Michèle’s public persona is forged in a photograph that is taken and manipulated without her consent, the film begins with a violation of a different kind: Michèle is raped in her own home by a man she later identifies as her kind, bashful neighbor, Patrick. The brilliance of Elle is the intense web of dependency it builds between these two events.
Elle depicts Michèle’s rapist as the violent extreme of a continuum of misogynist desires. A stranger recognizes her as the daughter of Georges Leblanc and pours garbage on her food while she’s taking her lunch break. Three men at her office develop consuming preoccupations with her, which assume the forms of an affair, a hapless crush, and machismo verbal abuse. It’s not clear until the end which of these is motivated by Michèle’s infamous girlhood. When Michèle asks Patrick why he raped her, his face breaks into a small, depthless gaze: “It had to be done.” Asking what “it” is--revenge upon a tabloid star? The symbolic maiming of all women?--is less fruitful than understanding that Patrick feels he must do “it” in order to fulfill a role he fashioned for himself. It’s a pitiful, empty boast. In stark contrast, Michèle is endowed, through Isabelle Hubbert’s intoxicating performance, with intelligence, a cynical sense of humor, poise, meanness, ambiguity and an ageless sex appeal. Whatever fascination, horror or respect she evokes originates in her status as the most fully-realized character of the film.
In highlighting an array of sex and power dynamics, Elle stymies one of the most powerful myths about consent: that those who perpetrate such acts are wolves among men, given to paroxysms of sexual rage, rather than conscious political actors, furiously revising their lives upon the bodies of others. Elle is not this year’s only acclaimed film to draw this distinction. In Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, a young woman is attacked in her home by a desperate, Willy Loman-style family man who wants to feel virile and viable for a moment again. In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a novelist writes a lurid rape plot as revenge upon an old lover he still murderously resents for getting an abortion and leaving him for another man (he sends her the manuscript). In each of these depictions I can acknowledge a noble drive on the director’s part to elevate sexual assault outside the realm of the senseless; its perpetrators are given more direction than mere depravity. Art that thinks is always preferable to art that merely depicts the unthinkable. But only Elle gives its female protagonist the lion’s share of her story’s words, and claws enough to rip the bloody mask from her assailant’s face. Without it, her life will go on, but his won’t.
There are psychological thrillers, and there are psychoanalytic thrillers. Hitchcock specialized in the latter, treating 90-minutes of film time like the world’s most effective therapy session: the protagonist begins a neurotic, only to discover his latent castration complex, psycho-sexual “inversion,” or adolescent trauma just in time for closing credits. Sometimes (see Rear Window, Spellbound, The Birds), he even gets the girl.
It’s only natural that the psychoanalytic thriller, like psychoanalysis itself, should have a strong French tradition, and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is the apotheosis of this genre--the Lacan to Hitchcock’s Freud. If Hitchcock had made this film, it would have been titled Michèle, like Freud’s Dora. But Lacan, unlike Freud, avoided case studies. He lectured about language as the structuring apparatus of the unconscious, so it is only natural that Elle’s protagonist, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), should be represented by her pronoun, a linguistic stand-in. Indeed, the dual-nature of the pronoun “elle,” allowing her to be both subject and object, is a clever metonymy for Michèle’s remarkable self-sufficiency. She lives alone (well, with a cat); she owns her own business; and, after the home invasion and rape that begins the film, she refuses the aid of friends, family, and the police. This extreme self-reliance makes her not only a boss bitch--or, as she is referred to multiple times throughout the film, a “cunt” (connasse). It also makes her what Lacan called a “phallic mother,” a woman terrifying to man because she is phantasmatically endowed with the symbolic attributes of the phallus. She has no lack, no need that she cannot fulfill herself, no desire that she cannot self-satisfy--thus, tacitly affirming the fear central to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis: male castration.
But as phallic mother, Michèle is not inured to neurosis. She has suffered a trauma in her youth, and, true to the form of the psychoanalytic thriller, the origins of this trauma are revealed, and its symptoms are sublimated by the film’s close. As an adolescent, Michèle’s father went on a psychotic rampage in their small French suburb, butchering all living creatures (save Michèle) in sight. The media, the police, the state, and indeed the law-of-the-father (as Lacan would say) turned against her, fundamentally distorting her relationship to the Symbolic Order. In psychoanalytic terms, her compulsion to repeat this trauma in the form of the rape fantasy that sustains the film’s narrative is only natural. Of course she would want to reenact the pain that her father and the patriarchal French state imposed on her from youth. This is where things get interesting.
As Michèle and her rapist begin to satisfy each other’s violent psychosexual perversions--as rapist and rape fantasist unite--the affair seems to become tacitly consensual. In order to inject non-consent back into the erotic scene, Michèle role-plays the feminist: she tells her rapist that she is going to call the cops after all, if only to spare other women from his villainy. He takes this to be the come-on that it is and breaks into her home moments later, ski mask on his face, pouncing on her from behind. Coopting a defense of womankind into her fantasy, Michèle may seem like nothing more than an anti-feminist anti-hero. But her choreographed “no means yes” is a wink to feminist critics of psychoanalysis, whose principle critique of Lacan and “Papa Freud” stems from their theory of disavowal, in which every patient’s “no” is an unspoken yes, revealing psychoanalytic method to be an extended (and expensive) performance of non-consent.
Verhoeven, then, might not be the Lacan to Hitchcock’s Freud, but the Irigaray--Lacan’s most famous feminist critic. Elle ends with the deaths of Michèle’s father and her rapist, respectively, and with her triumphant reunion with her business partner and soon-to-be roommate, Anna. In the columbarium containing Michèle’s father’s remains, the two women giggle and walk away from the men that they no longer need: neither to sustain their lux lifestyles, their libidos, nor their impolitic fetishes. Through their climactic caresses and knowing gazes, Michèle and Anna certainly don’t upend the masculinist Symbolic Order in the way that Irigaray hoped a feminist psychoanalysis (or a feminist psychoanalytic thriller) might. But they do reaffirm her most famous claim: “Woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure everywhere.” In Elle, that pleasure is our pleasure.
Elle, for me, is peak Isabelle Huppert. She stomps and strides as Michèle Leblanc, a successful, unsentimental video game producer at the height of her career. It’s not just the performance--her character is a woman who is brutally and serially raped without indulging the clichés of trauma narratives--but also the extent to which Huppert seems to have imbued Michèle with her own persona. Huppert’s own career has been marked by an affinity for fearlessly modern characters who never dwell on bad luck or delight in good fortune. Her women gaze without flinching into uncertain futures.
Michèle, after all, is not dissimilar to Nathalie Chazeaux, the unsentimental philosophy professor Huppert plays in Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, Things to Come. (It was released in the U.S. in December.) When Nathalie is unceremoniously dumped by her husband and dropped by her publisher, she quickly adapts, refusing to dwell in her obsolescent identity as renowned academic and wife. Michèle, after the attack, similarly abandons an older version of herself without so much as a tear. Interestingly, both women also struggle with mothers who cannot let go of the past, and for whom vanity and delusion serve as comforts.
Huppert, in her performances as Nathalie and Michèle, moves through the world with an instinctive, sensory determination. She takes up as much space as she wants and has no patience for the stupidity that surrounds her. These characters are not rooted in humanist theories of authenticity, but they are human and authentic because Huppert doesn’t really act so much as she comes to life. And so Michèle, a character who is--at first unknowingly, and then with full knowledge--attracted to her rapist, is neither a teaching moment nor a symbol of the anti-victim. Instead, she is a woman whose trauma radicalizes her. She anticipates the incompetence of everyone around her and takes matters into her own hands, even as her positioning as a victim becomes complex and rightly imperfect. After she’s attacked, she cleans up the broken vase, buys a dagger, and has the locks changed. She then goes to dinner at a fancy restaurant with her ex-husband and two married friends and matter-of-factly tells them she’s been raped.
It’s important that narratives around rape are not prescriptive, but attentive. In watching Elle, the veracity I sought was in Michèle herself, in her alternating presence and withdrawal, vengefulness and regret, rather than in the details of the attack and its aftermath. The plot is farfetched, but its specifics are plausible. That the rapist is someone Michèle not only knows and likes, but is romantically drawn to, speaks to the fact that most rape survivors are attacked by people they know and trust: lovers, family, friends. Elle somewhat controversially twists that statistic into the central arc of a thriller--it deploys the familiarity between Michèle and her rapist as a provocation, and the heroine is not given the righteous avenue out. She doesn’t openly grapple with her attraction to him, and her feelings and motivations remain murky until the end.
Michèle refuses the idea that there’s any correct way for a rape survivor to conduct herself, while also avoiding the language that many survivors use to talk about rape. In one scene, Michèle daydreams of struggling with and killing the rapist before he is able to violate her. In another, she disaffectedly chastises her cat for not having attempted to claw the rapist. The moment is both funny and heartbreaking; Michèle is not really joking when she holds the cat up to her face.
A tricky thing happens in Elle: the rape, although it is the first and defining event of the entire film, constitutes no part of Michèle’s identity. She doesn’t work within or beyond the title of rape survivor; it often seems like she never even thinks of it. Her actions are practical and methodical even when they are not lawful or rational. We’re not expected to prize her perfect victimhood over her messy survival. Instead, we watch as Huppert slams her heels into the ground.