What I Watched: Elle

Elle Movie Isabelle Huppert
Still from ‘Elle’, 2016

WARNING:

The following post discusses sexual assault and violence and may be upsetting and/or disturbing to some readers.  Reader discretion is advised.

Every July, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is host to its French Film festival, which boasts a showcase of “a diverse selection of the very best new French cinema”.  No lie there.  I’m usually lucky enough to catch a viewing or two, and the decision to pick which films to attend is fairly impossible.  Someday, when Oprah discovers À La Prochaine, lists it as one of her favorite things, and I can retire early- I’ll be able to catch and afford the festival in its entirety.  Until then, a francophile can certainly improvise.

This year, I couldn’t catch the festival.  The logistics simply weren’t in my favor.  C’est la vie!  To alleviate the void, I brainstormed an idea to make my own festival instead.  This actually worked much better, since the popcorn is cheap chez moi and my pink flamingo slippers make my feet sing with glee.

To commence this humble festival, I immediately thought to rent Elle (2016) from Amazon Video, which is my primary hub for French flicks.  This was an easy decision. Isabelle Huppert.  Swoon.  Need I say more?  She is THE archetype for cinematic talent, or so my bias believes.  Her role in Elle earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress as well as a nomination for the same category at the Academy Awards.  The list of the film’s accolades continues.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fangirl.  However, there was some issue clouding this particular choice. It’s a heavy storyline, as in really disturbing.

**WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD**

The first few minutes of Elle, a psycho-sexual thriller, introduce us to Huppert’s character, Michèle, as she painfully shrieks while being beaten and raped on the floor of her luxury Parisian home by a masked assailant.  Following the assault, the attacker flees, and Michèle calmly recollects herself to continue her routine as if it were just another regular day. While she firmly decides against reporting the attack to police, she determines that she herself must solve the mystery of her attacker’s identity.

What do we know about Michèle?  For starters, she is the head of a successful video game company whose employees either love or resent her rigorous leadership tactics and candor.  Her familial relationships are no less complicated and bizarre. As she is herself a divorcee, Michèle’s son is involved with an abusive woman, presumably pregnant with another man’s baby.  Michèle’s elderly, narcissistic mother continually beds a string of younger male suitors.  Then… oof… this one is a doozey- there’s Papa, an imprisoned serial killer who involved Michèle in his mass murders when she was a child.

Michèle doesn’t exactly have the sunniest life, it would appear.  We all have baggage, right?

When she is attacked, Michèle understandably becomes leery of every male in her life. Employees. Friends. Neighbors.  She trusts no one. Having been used as a pawn by her father during his murder spree, and then again as an adult by her attacker, she begins questioning every male relationship she has.  However, her rapist gradually becomes more brazen, frequently taunting her through mystery text messages while she would be alone and most vulnerable.  Michèle knows that in some capacity, she must know her attacker. But… who could it be?

We do learn the identity of the rapist, which I will not reveal.  Yet, we also learn that this man finds a devious thrill in sexually violent encounters with women who do not consent to such activities.

Here’s where things become even more disturbing…

Once Michèle learns of her attacker’s identity, she mindfully baits him into attacking her again, and the two begin a perverse relationship that sees them repeating the rape scenario for continued encounters until they are caught by family.  The film then concludes, if you can imagine, on another strange note, which I won’t spoil.

So the big question- did I like Elle, and do I recommend it?

The film is worth viewing. Sure.  Isabelle Huppert owns this role- it was made for her.  Michèle is cunning, complicated, and calculating, and Huppert portrays this seamlessly.  You hate her, while pitying the disparity of her own life that has been mostly devoid of any control.  Let’s take a second to think about it.  Her father betrayed her.  Her husband betrayed her.  She hates that her son is in a toxic relationship.  She even admonishes her voyeuristic cat for passively staring during Michèle’s  assault at the start of the movie.  Aside from her career, Michèle is powerless in most of her relationships.  Disturbingly I’ll admit, it makes sense that Michèle would begin a relationship with her attacker, because in that situation she became the initiator, and their encounters are then on her terms.  She attempts to take control of the situation by engaging in this unhealthy relationship.

Do I enjoy watching anything pertaining to sexual assault?  Absolutely not.  Make no mistake, this film is uncomfortable, and at times, downright frightening to watch. The assault scenes are not lacking in gore. That being said, the story line is an intelligent dissection into psychological disorders, with twists and turns.  Michèle is undoubtedly a fascinating character to follow, regardless of one’s love or hatred toward her.

Truth: While it was riveting cinema, I don’t anticipate needing or wanting to see Elle ever again.  I’m all set.  Isabelle Huppert, of course, will continue to be my majestic unicorn.  She’ll always have a place on my TV screen.

So, the ALP Film Festival continues… what will I watch next?  In fact, for the sake of my fragile emotional state, I think the next movie had better be a rom com.  I need fluff, folks. Lots of it.

À la prochaine!

  1. Diane

    July 29, 2017 at 2:37 am

    Excellent review! I caught Elle on Canal+ a couple of months ago and found myself mad at Michele and frustrated. The storyline kept me on my toes, though. I found the movie intriguing and well-done but don’t want to say anything further and spoil anything. I also found it do-able in French w/o subs, which is always good. Some movies have so much slang (or accents, or crazy vocabulary) that they’re hard to watch in VO and I get frustrated because I’m missing so much dialogue.

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