On its face, Elle appears to be the story of a victim falling in love with her rapist. The misinterpretation, is the “victim.”
Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a video game designer. The daughter of a serial killer. And someone who has been raped.
The film’s open sequence is the sound of crashing china, Huppert’s grunts and screams, and her rapist’s orgasm. Once finished, the would be rapist picks himself up, wipes off the blood from Huppert’s period, and departs. All while he cats sits and watch (A reason not to invest in a cat).
Meanwhile Huppert is in an affair with her best friend’s husband (Christian Berkel). Her mother (Judith Magre) is dating a man who’s probably 40+ years her junior. Richard Leblanc (Charles Berling), her ex-husband, is dating a yoga instructor who’s younger than him. And her murder rampaging father may be getting out of jail on parole. Other than that, there’s more sunshine here than a pale Irishmen gets.
Elle is a soap opera. An entire season could spread across its 131 minute run-time. Where else would a woman as intelligent as Huppert have a son as dumb as Vincent (Jonas Bloquet)? A man who doesn’t realize that a black child isn’t his (I hope there’s a French version of Maury, somewhere. Would baby mommas throw croissants at each other?). Where else would Huppert stroke her married neighbor’s crotch with her foot (Laurent Lafitte) underneath a table during Christmas dinner (The gift basket is real)?
Yet, it is Huppert’s relationship with her rapist that is most controversial. She shifts from fearing him, buying pepper spray and an ax, to looking forward to his arrival. The mistake here would be to say that she is a victim. This isn’t victim shaming. Or to say she had it coming. To say she should dress less revealingly. Victims lack control. Victims have control taken away from them.
The fact that the screenplay, a well written one by David Birke, doesn’t waddle into the same sperm Huppert’s rapist leaves on her bed, is because of Huppert. She simply carries the film. Never the victim. Her father’s legacy hangs over her, yet she rebuilds her life. Her mother, desperate for male companionship, is a speck. Huppert cooly calls her out as “disgusting” during Christmas dinner. Her humor is biting. Such as her taking out the front fender to her ex-husband’s car, then walking in to have dinner with him. And the exterior masks she renders with little emotion is a facade of a glass door, which cracks, but rarely shatters.
When her rapist comes to do the deed, she turns his sexual desires against him. She initiates sex. Tells him when to come pick her up. Slaps him. Grabs him. Stabs him. His control is only a false sense of security. Huppert becomes the puppet master. Twisting and contorting her marionette where she pleases. Huppert’s character is open with her sexuality. As mentioned above, she has an affair with her best friend’s husband. She has sex with her best friend. She arouses her neighbor. Confounds her rapist. And nearly goes after a couple of her employees.
There was a moment when she was a victim. Probably for the first hour. But Huppert can never allow Michele to be anything but herself. A woman who even after you leave, continues on her with her day. Because she knows, you’ll be back. And that’s just how she wants it….
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