The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen. The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock. It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward. This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).
Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime. Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance. Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree. It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.
Why should there be an apology? Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level. It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated. She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road. In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today. So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way. Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one. The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.
The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist. We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues. More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself. In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think. Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family. This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.
Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed. I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.
If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film. Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics. Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist. It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power. Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.
That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say. Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work. Michéle is a seriously flawed person. She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath. Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her. If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?
Final recommendation: Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen. I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons. It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires. It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on. It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically. This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging. If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.