Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany/Belgium
There are disturbing films, funny films, and suspenseful films, but it is rare to come across one which manages to combine all three of these genres together so seamlessly and successfully. ELLE begins with a black screen and the sounds of what seems to be an erotic encounter. This assumption is quickly ripped away as we are thrown into the dramatic aftermath of a violent rape. The victim is Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), Elle to her friends, who slowly brushes herself off, cleans up the mess, and continues on with her life. Indeed, victim seems a strange word for a woman so self-sufficient and determined to deal with this traumatic event as though it was no more important than a minor injury. She informs her friends casually when they are out to dinner, and while they are shocked, she is more than ready to move on. She told them because she thought it might be important for them to know, not because she was looking for sympathy or help. But the truth is that the rape has affected her; she sleeps with weapons, changes the locks on the doors, and starts to search for her rapist. It is then through this lens that we see the men in her life: her ex-husband with whom she is still friends but had to divorce for hitting her, her best friend's husband with whom she has been having sex and who seems particularly callous by asking for sexual favors soon after learning of her assault, the misogynist men of her workplace who may or may not hate her enough to do such a violent act. Every man is a suspect, but this does not stop her from living her life with humor and erotic encounters with her attractive neighbor. Elle is a conundrum, she is a complicated woman who makes no apologies for her brazenness, and is far more than her rape. This comes to a climax in the second half of the film when she takes the victim narrative and completely turns it on its head in a most unexpected twist.
The character of Elle is pivotal for the success of the film and Isabelle Huppert puts on one of the best performances of the year with her portrayal of her. There is a common problem when rape is used as a plot device as it often denigrates the female character to nothing more than an object to further the story. However, where ELLEsucceeds is by making it a catalyst to the story, but not the definition of the character. Elle is so much more than this one event, and in the end she is so strong (and twisted) that she takes control of her trauma and owns it. It raises the question about how much of our opinion on how women should react to such a trauma is influenced by media narratives. Elle is not a stereotype, and in a way that is more shocking than anything else.