Few reviewers have mentioned it, but that Paul Verhoeven’s acclaimed sex-thriller is set in fairylight-lit December brings added dimension to the suspenseful tale.
NOTHING IS SACRED IN ELLE’S COLD-HEART WORLD
OF COURSE the huge Christmas tree in the offices of a zeitgeisty Parisian video game company is a striking Bazooka Joe pink. It screams contrived unconventionality. Yet the young people, mostly men, who work there, for all their presumed youth-cultural superiority to middle-aged female boss, Michele Leblanc (a glacial Isabelle Huppert) are clearly still a cut below her. Of the latest sexually violent animation that is their stock in trade, she demands that the orgasmic moans of a woman being raped by a tentacled monster be made suitably ecstatic.
Later that same day, her coarse lover, played by Christian Berkel (the husband of her friend and company co-founder, Anne Consigny’s Anna), will enter Michele’s small office demanding sex, and after drawing the blinds she will push him away and hold a wastepaper basket ready for him to pleasure himself instead. She apparently handles whatever life throws at her as a matter of fact. And the incidents of this particular working day are made all the more disturbing to us, the viewers, since they come immediately after divorcee Ms Leblanc’s violent rape the previous evening in her mansion by a masked intruder – at the very top of the film. After which, she cleared up with a dustpan and brush, took a bath, and then phoned for a takeway rather than the police, and took a hammer to bed – and, for now tells no one. Nothing phases her, and what’s more, she chooses how she then responds.
Foreign World Where The Loving Ain’t Easy
Director Paul Verhoeven has made a striking career out of controversy with movies such as Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997), and, for many, his latest does not disappoint on that score. For all the acclaim both film and actress have received in the wake of the release of Elle (and some reviews have focused so much on the mesmerising Huppert that you cannot help suspect that the critic didn’t quite know just what to make of what they were watching), it is not an easy ‘read’ on many levels.
Based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, ‘Oh’, Verhoeven originally hoped to cast Nicole Kidman in an American version. Kidman, who had co-starred alongside then-husband, Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s darkly erotic Christmas-set Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would likely have done a fine job, but it was felt a US setting would not do the story justice. Or the film be received in the same way than if it was distanced by its foreign, French setting. (As it happens, Eyes Wide Shut and Elle would make a daring seasonal double-bill at a cinema brave enough to screen it.)
A Woman After Her Own Heart?
Michele’s determination to live beyond the status of victim, to take revenge on her rapist, appears at face-value to present an empowering, feminist vision. (Additionally, such is the presentation of practically every man in the movie as incompetent and not up to her fiery independence, including her ex-husband, Richard – Charles Berling – and dim son, Jonas Bloquet’s Vincent, that it feels like we are watching a strong candidate for the flipside of the Bechdel test.) She stocks up on weopanry, and takes shooting lessons, but in a plot full of unexpected twists and turns – David Birke’s script contradicts Chekhov’s famous Law  – Ms Leblanc doesn’t actually use the armoury she accumulated in Act One. Instead, she embarks on a cat and mouse game with her assailant. as dangerous to either as the one-sided battle between Michele’s wonderfully stoic pet cat and an unfortunate garden bird. (The cat is as deserving of an acting award as the seagull in last year’s The Shallows.)
Yet piece-by-piece, an image emerges of Michele’s murderous family background which sheds a completely different light on who she is today. Back when she was ten, her religious fanatic father slaughtered all the neighbours’ children in her suburban street, and no one has ever forgotten the disturbing image of the blank-stared murderer’s daughter apparently inveigled into the crime. Michele, then, is forever trapped in time by a photograph and defined by an atrocity committed decades earlier. She, thus, remains a victim of her childhood. No wonder, then, her reactions and reasonings appear warped. Nothing else can be any worse than then. Emotionally laced-up and scathing of her dysfunctional, over-Botoxed mother who pays for a much younger male ‘companion’, there is something of the daughter in Toni Erddmann (2016) about Michelle. (Like that German film, Elle is not without its humour,) But all these women, including Michelle’s mother are trying to escape their father/husband in their own way.
A Distanced Seasonal Ritual
In the midst of her Christmastime assaults, Michelle perversely hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and invites neighbours, family, and friends. Here, as her Catholic mother and neighbours watch Midnight Mass from Rome on the television, she is reminded of the ritual of excommunication from the Church though it is not clear as to whether she is talking about her mass murdering father, or, indeed, herself. Michele appears indifferent to belief, earlier bemused by her neighbour’s large Nativity figures positioned in her front garden as a reminder of the beginning and centre of the festival, and now, the same woman’s suggestion of Grace before people begin eating. (Au contraire, Michele will earlier admit to Anna, ‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all. Believe me.’ She is her father’s daughter.)
In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is accompanied by a Christmas tree in almost every scene. As he wanders ever closer towards psychological and moral danger, the flickering lights and colours of the trees appear to anchor him and offer guidance, protection and hope beyond the New York night. In the offices and streets of the Paris of Elle, the rows of white lights are neatly strung, the trees a stylishly uniform and artificial hue. They are present but seem merely to offer a decorative presence in secular France.
Even among the Christian guests at Michele’s dinner party,there appears a distance between their faith and life. They do not attend church at the second most holiest time (after Easter) of the annual calendar. Nevertheless, in a secular and very dark world, they attempt to keep the flame alive: the neighbour will admit to Michele that she is given strength by her faith. And the ‘sins of the fathers’ appear to be a closed book for the niaive Vincent. His view of the Pope may well be of a holy man who walks inches above the ground, but it is his brave act that saves his mother which breaks the family ‘spell’. And it is he, like the previously free-spirited William in LoveTrue who is latterly grown up and loving enough to move the Leblanc story forward by accepting another man’s child as his own. Chillingly however, as regards Michele Leblanc, we cannot tell if she has shifted one iota.
Elle can be seen at selected cinemas.