At the end of the title sequence just when the name of director Paul Verhoeven appears on screen we hear some objects smashing on the floor while a violent struggle is taking place. As these sounds continue the frame turns black and remains that way for a short period of time. The actual first image of the film is that of a cat who’s a bemused onlooker while the lady of the house Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is being raped.
How this mature woman will cope with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted is basic-ally the main subject of this film. Its originality lays in the fact that the brutal rape seem-ingly hasn’t effected her too much. She certainly manifests a rather cavelier way of dea-ling with this event which one would expect to be rather traumatising. She doesn’t call the police but on the contrary cleans up the rape crime scene and takes a bath to clean herself while having a glass of red wine. When her son comes home and notices a bruise on her face she quickly comes up with the simple excuse that she fell off her bike.
It’s obvious that Verhoeven is not interested in depicting a typical main character from a straightforward rape victim/revenge film, ranging from Nuts (1987) (you know, that film in which Barbara Streisand is being raped by Leslie Nielsen a.k.a. inspector Drebin from Naked Gun) and The Accused (1988) on the one hand to Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 (1981) and The Brave One (2007) on the other, to name but a few. Instead Michèle Leblanc is yet another strong female character in a long line of strong women in his films, manipulation is often their game and sex one of the tools for survival, we’ll find out in due course what she’s up to.
Many great films have centered around or featured infamous rape scenes, such as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), De Palma’s Casulaties of War (1989), Gaspard Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and most of the body of work of Verhoeven for that matter, but none where you as an audience member left the movie theater thinking: now that was fun! I’m obviously not referring to the rape scenes.
If you are familiar with Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre you’ll notice many similarities or nods to his previous work and you’ll discover that this time round he’s leaning towards a more subtle/restraint approach, at least for a Verhoeven film that is. A few examples: Just compare the ‘castration’ scissors scene from De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, 1983)with the ‘stigmata’ scissors scene in Elle. Or ‘study’ the amount of ‘bodily fluids’ on display on the bed sheets in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) in the “He got off before he got offed” scene versus the perpetrator ‘leaving a message’ in this film.
The way the documentary TV footage is used revealing ‘her troubled past’ -which upto that point was only hinted at during conversations with her mother and sudden violent reactions from people who seem to recognise her for some reason- reminded me somewhat of the projected home movies of several fatal outings in The Fourth Man. Both sequences leave room to suggest the female lead characters may have been a in one way or another a participant in the horrific events that took place. Not unlike Catherine Tramell or Hazel Dobkins (played by Dorothy Malone) in Basic Instinct, a character which Sharon Stone, in the part that made her famous, keeps in touch with as a sort of ‘murderess technical advisor’ for her crime novels.
What remained is an ongoing fascination with the historical figure of Jesus. He’s become a fervent participant and respected member of the Jesus Seminar and also wrote a book on the subject called Jesus of Nazareth. He has been trying to make a movie about the life of Christ for ages, but considering his basic premise is that Jesus was not the result of an immaculate conception (as is the popular ‘belief’) but instead that of (Holy) Mary being raped by a Roman soldier, you can understand why he’s been having difficulty getting this project greenlit anywhere, let alone in Hollywood. This however would be a Biblical film I might actually be looking forward to seeing. Furthermore, in Elle there’s a strong suggestion that Michèle’s son is not the biological father of his girlsfriend’s child, making him kind of a Joseph-like figure.