Isabelle Huppert stars as a woman trying to learn the identity of the man who raped her. Based on that description, I pegged Elle for a revenge story, but it’s much more complicated and interesting than that. As the film unfolds, we learn Huppert is the producer of sexually violent video games. Then we learn she’s the daughter of a mass-murderer. It’s indicated that her role in that famous crime might not have been completely innocent. From that point on, I watched Elle with my gender studies lens and found it ripe with suggestion.
I love that Huppert’s character revolts against victimhood. She’s reluctant to even tell people she was raped. But once she does, she picks up target practice, arms herself with mace, and isn’t afraid to go home or challenge people she suspects might be her attacker. In a world (increasingly so) in which every female character in the movies must be either a total heroine or total victim, it is so incredibly refreshing to see a woman portrayed as a true, complete human being — both strong and vulnerable. It’s an incredibly dynamic role and Huppert richly earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal.
Director Paul Verhoeven (The 4th Man, Basic Instinct) is no stranger to psycho-sexual thrillers, but Elle offers him a more character-driven piece than he’s perhaps ever had before. Known for his volatile subject matter and plentiful viscera, Verhoeven turns in a suitably restrained effort here. Elle is not an exploitation movie. It’s really not even (stylistically) a genre movie.
We are taught that rape is about power more than sex. And to that extent, we are accustomed to men having the power and women being the victims of men’s abuse. Elle is a bold, brave film that probes beyond those assumptions, suggesting power is not always exclusive to just one gender, and that shame transforms us all. The film proclaims nothing and will leave a lot of viewers full of questions. It’s not a film that takes an ideological stand — how boring. Instead, Elle reminds of us what complicated animals we are.
Oscar Nomination: Best Actress (Huppert)