decoding the complex moral compass of paul verhoeven’s ‘elle’

If I’ve taken one lesson from Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge drama Elle, it would be to never fuck with an angry French woman. I’ve also learned that hunting down your stalker is always done best when wearing killer outfits.

Watching this, the film that has caused shockwaves amongst cinephiles and won its lead actress, Isabelle Huppert, a Golden Globe, I often swung from one extreme of the emotional scale to the other. At one point, I find myself admiring the interiors of a palatial, Parisian home in one scene before being left literally open mouthed in shock at the next.

The film opens with a fairly graphic depiction of a sexual assault upon a woman. We later learn she is Michèle Leblanc: a successful businesswoman in the video gaming industry. Almost immediately after the assault takes place, Michèle cleans up the shards of broken glass and has dinner with her son. The next evening, she breaks the news for the first time to her shocked friends and ex-husband nonchalantly over dinner.

These juxtapositions occur throughout the film, rendering the viewer’s moral compass skewed and – more often than not – unsure as to where our loyalties should lie. Michèle is portrayed as both an innocent woman and a harlot. Sure, she suffers horrendous, repeated rapes and attacks throughout the film, but she’s also complicit in several affairs with the husband’s of her best friend and neighbour, meddling in her ex-lover’s new relationship as well as those of her mother and son. She is the stereotypical bitch boss, arousing hatred from many male members of the office. She refuses to visit her elderly father in prison or report her attacker to the police and yet maintains an unnerving serenity throughout.

These factors can make it more difficult to establish a sympathetic connection with the character. We discover the reason for her father’s imprisonment; perhaps one of the film’s most pivotal moments that provides an insight into her strange demeanour. During her childhood, her father murdered several children in the neighbourhood before returning to their home and encouraging young Michèle to burn it down. We’re told that the crime is infamous throughout France and is once again placed in the spotlight as her father, now 76, applies for parole. This leads her to believe that her attacker may be someone who has a vendetta against both her and her parents, causing her to cast suspicion on several of her work colleagues before we learn of her attacker’s identity.

Instead of ending her torment, she entwines herself further by calling on her attacker in times of need and turning up to the same dinner parties that he’s attending. Could this be some explanation for her resoluteness despite the indiscretions and atrocities she deals with throughout the film? Or could it be that we are not conditioned to sympathise with female characters who are anything less than virtuous in the eyes of the ever-present cinematic male gaze? After all, she is far from the stereotypical image of female purity; exposing her libidinous desires and even – shock! horror! – her period in the bloody thighs of her attacker.

As a viewer, it’s easy to identify with Michèle and her morally complex actions. After leaving the film, I found myself looking over my shoulder more often and entering my dark, empty house with more trepidation than usual. These events could happen to any female; who knows how you would react?

Perhaps you would put on your shit-kicking boots, as my dad would say, and fight your own battles like Michèle does; because it’s clear there is no Prince Charming waiting around the corner to rescue you anymore. It turns out, if you deal with it all as intelligently as Michèle manages to, then you definitely don’t need him either.

Elle played as part of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival. It opens in UK cinemas on March 10th.

Hayley Jane Dawson is a feminist writer and artist living in Glasgow

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