Another form that films about sexual assault often take is the “rape revenge,” in which a woman takes a phallic knife or gun and avenges the rape by striking these tools against men, becoming, in a way, the rapist. These phallic-centric fantasies have little to do with a survivor’s experience; in my view, the rape revenge film is most often a male fantasy.
In a crucial scene in Elle, after Michèle literally unmasks her attacker, she stares him in the eye, challenging him, unblinking—her rapist is someone she knows. Her rapist is the weakest of the weak men surrounding her. Why else would he rape? It’s an all-too-familiar paradox: that someone can be friend and rapist, lover and rapist, relative and rapist. Michèle refuses to let her attacker escape this contradiction by being one role or the other. She forces him to be both at once.
Rather than examine rape as an extreme action, Elle focuses on the essence of rape: consent and power. Emotions are muddied and complex in the film, but the lines of consent are crystal clear: Michèle is violently raped (without consent) and later clearly chooses to have violent sex (with consent). Though some might judge the way she chooses to have sex or whom with, frankly, that’s none of our business. Both director and actress seem to agree it’s not their business what turns on this character either; some things are politely out of bounds of examination. What’s important for looking at rape is simply whether she consented to it or not. In a tricky plot twist, when Michèle does give her consent to someone she’d been attracted to, when the power is obviously hers, the man who had been her rapist loses his power of violation. He can’t do it when the power is hers.
Much of Elle is simple and grotesque—like a fairy tale with a moral lesson plus the extra-moral haunting effects always part of the best old fairy tales. Huppert is like the only real person in this Perrault-esque tale and her performance is packed with funny and bizarre reactions to this weird world. Every moment she’s on screen (which is every scene) she’s fascinating to watch with her exasperated exclamations, loud gaffaws, and instinctive gestures—she licks red wine off her hand, she plays a quick air guitar while dancing awkwardly to Iggy Pop. Huppert said at the New York Film Festival that Verhoeven gave her complete control to react in her own way. “I think Paul said that he was interested with what I was doing, because since I was a woman, by definition I would know more than him, what I was supposed to do. It is a kind of documentary about a woman,” she said.
Her performance is a clear case of actress as auteur, and most recent criticism that looks at this as a rape film by men—the sharp script by David Birke is based on a novel by Philippe Djian—overlooks that. Huppert as Michèle is our guide through rape’s heart of darkness. Her scenes confronting her rapist intellectually are among the best in her obscenely illustrious career. She’s knowing, shocked, further knowing, and undaunted, as if she had nothing to lose. She’s like the curious woman in Perrault’s Tale of Bluebeard who wants to look in the forbidden room. “Why did you do it?” she asks her rapist directly. “It was necessary,” he says to this powerful woman with a well-known trauma in her past. And it feels shocking and true to his logic. Elle is clean, deep, and uncomfortable. Michèle looks directly into the mind of a rapist and those who protect him. And what she finds is unsettling.