The Second Sex: Philippa Snow On Paul Verhoeven’s Elle

Philippa Snow takes an in-depth look at Paul Verhoeven's polarising rape revenge comedy

“A woman who’s read The Second Sex,” says sixty-year-old divorcee Michele LeBlanc to her ex, “will chew you up… And spit you out.” One wonders what exactly Michele has been reading. Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a bleak and amusing “rape comedy” that’s been written, produced and directed by men. It also belongs without question to Isabelle Huppert, whose turn as a woman who is, by turns, lonely, successful, a mother, a rape victim, sensual, a sociopath and a sneering adulteress, chills just as much as it electrifies. I had shivers leaving the screening. Audience members exhaled as if watching a relative’s open-heart surgery. It would not be accurate, exactly, to say that Michele was a heroine. It would not be wrong to call this a rape-revenge film, but it would be reductive. What is there to say? Psychically bludgeoned as much as Michele is for real in the first act, it’s tempting to act the same way — to say nothing.

As you know or you’ve gathered, she’s raped. I won’t describe the scene, but I wish that it only played out once, as once was enough. It’s the opener. It spares few details. Michele reacts to her victimhood by cleaning up and ordering sushi, then by standing by her window, grimly, holding a hammer, and later by taking a trip to the gun shop. The scene transition here (she reads a sick text from her rapist, we see her look thoughtful — smash-cut to Huppert browsing weapons, serenely) is pure Verhoeven: outlandish, hilarious, utterly tasteless, bizarrely empowering, technical. It’s also very Verhoeven that he bothers to show that she bleeds, as I can’t recall seeing this detail in most films with rape scenes. By nature, he gives you a little more — or a lot more — than you’ve asked for. Huppert is so natural, simmering, overflowing with minute gestures, though, that she grounds it.

“I suppose I was raped,” she coolly tells the table of friends that she’s met with for dinner, just as a young waiter arrives with champagne. There is an awkward silence. “I think,” her ex-husband says, sotto voce, “you’d better wait a minute before you open that.” These are the kinds of jokes — and they are, sometimes, fully honed, full-bodied jokes — that had the audience laughing at Elle, albeit reluctantly. It’s unnerving to see so little reaction to an attack, but we cheer for the hero who gets shot and carries on fighting. What the film becomes once the man who did this to Michele is unmasked is an exploration of personal, sexual, and emotional psychology: we have no idea who this woman is. It becomes clear that her rapist doesn’t know who he’s dealing with, either, even though he believes that he does. The critic Sheila O’Malley makes a good point about Elle being grounded, however perversely, in classic Hollywood’s “women’s pictures” — “you can picture Barbara Stanwyck,” she offers, “stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room.”

It’s more difficult to picture Barbara Stanwyck as the CEO of a company manufacturing violent videogames, but then times have changed. It’s Michele who holds the cards in her waning affair with her best friend’s dumb husband; it’s Michele who terrifies her scruffy all-male programmer staff. Her son is a dolt. She is still adored by her ex-husband, but we find out that she left because he hit her. Michele’s father is a famous killer: he destroyed her life when she was ten, and has been locked up ever since. The details of the crime are haunting. She is haunted. She behaves like a ghost herself, which is perhaps why nobody flesh-and-blood appears to be able to reach her. Bored with her lover, she lets him fuck her while she pretends she’s a corpse. “Where did you get that idea?” he asks, grinning. She only smiles. Who better to play necrophiliac lover than Lady Lazarus?

Eventually, she finds out who her attacker is, and to the bafflement of most of the audience, does not stop treating him civilly. Critics who call her later relationship with the man she knows as her rapist merely “consensual sex” as if they’re, I don’t know, dating, miss a crucial point — that rape has nothing to do with sex, truly. The act of rape is nothing without power. This is why it’s used as a weapon in war. When Michele decides to offer herself to her rapist outright, he declines — “it has to be the way it was before,” he says, panicked, as if she’s upsetting the status quo. And so, politely, she lets the guy hit her. She hits him back, too. She leaves and airily thanks him for dinner. She has, in some terrible, quiet and transferring way, neutralized him. She’s neutered him — she has, in caring for nothing, become a live weapon herself. A girl, as I’ve said here before, is a gun, but Michele is no girl; she’s a woman, an arsenal.

“How you feel about this brutal, elegantly crafted film,” says a reviewer at NPR, “will depend in part on whether you regard nihilism as a moral [or] political philosophy or as a film language that gets us to rethink the tired pieties that appeal to our vanity.” I had written down “Michele is a nihilist” after the screening; assuming we’re to take the definition as being “a person who rejects all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless,” I’d say that was accurate. (As if we needed more evidence, she is a cat person. No dog people are nihilists.) There is a scene at her Christmas soiree where she sits and speaks with the man who, as it turns out in the end, is her mystery rapist — I believe now, looking back, that she knows who he is before we do. She knows it then, I’m sure. It is a game where she is the predator, meaning the cat. She tells him the famous, hideous story of her childhood — the reason, we’re led to surmise, that Michele is the woman we’re seeing in Elle, i.e. unfeeling, vicious, amoral, untouched by disaster — and then, when the whole bloody thing has unravelled, she asks him “not bad, eh?” as if to say: I see you, fucker. I know you. How do you think that you’re going to hurt me, a dead woman?

Or maybe it’s all in my head. The line between fantasy and life is sometimes perforated, but when one breaks through to the other, sincerely, it tends to cause chaos. In Spring Breakers, teenagers execute an armed robbery by pretending that they’re in a videogame. In Elle, Michele — whose videogames all seem to have tentacled rapists in them — appears to obey the same rule. "Nut jobs I can handle,” she purrs. “My specialty.” They’re Verhoeven’s, too. It’s rare for a film about somebody so unfeeling to cause such emotional shockwaves, but Michele LeBlanc is a woman unlike any other. If the future is female, then it’s good to know that we’re no less frightening than men.

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