“There are two things I shall never do in my life,” asserts the Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, “One is make political movies and the other thing is delivering messages through cinema. Messages are not valid any more, these days. Our films should ask questions rather than have messages or give answers.”
In this interview appearing in the i daily paper last week, the journalist Kaleem Aftab does go on to clarify the particular situation facing directors in Iran, that ‘he or she must continually dance a line between what can or cannot be done’ or face prosecution and likely imprisonment.
Nevertheless, Farhadi’s telling reference to ‘these days’ gestures towards a larger concern with a contemporary cultural situation in which polarized politics, distrust in unfamiliar voices, and a crisis of empathy has made it increasingly difficult for artists and storytellers to be seen and heard beyond a certain audience.
To clarify what is meant by ‘messages’ and their invalidity in cinema, Farhadi (in the statement quoted above) has added a partial definition as being the giving of ‘answers’ and in doing so suggested a turn away from didacticism towards ambiguity and moral complexity. Put simply, it is not enough for cinema to preach to the converted; instead, it must continually ‘ask questions’ and challenge its audience.
Few films over the past year have challenged audiences quite like Elle, the latest and most sophisticated provocation from director Paul Verhoeven.
Elle is a film full of questions that offers few, if any, answers. On the one hand, it is a film about urgent contemporary subjects: gender politics, sexual violence, and victimhood. A one-sentence synopsis of the film does not do it justice, but serves to lay out the terrain that Verhoeven and lead actress Isabelle Huppert traverse with devilish skill: Elle is the story of Michèle, a successful businesswoman who is attacked and raped in her Paris home and the events that unfold across the following days and weeks.
The event of Michèle’s rape by a masked assailant in her own home foregrounds the entire narrative, constituting as it does the jarring first scene following a long and somewhat opulent title sequence. The indelible image of that opening scene is the lingering close-up of her cat watching the attack whilst we hear her cries and the commotion of the struggle.
And yet the scenes that follow emit a chilly, unnerving calm; having swept up the broken glass and debris from her floor and bathed away the blood between her legs, Michèle orders takeout for her adult son’s visit later that evening before swiftly returning to work and navigating the numerous vexatious relationships in her everyday professional and familial lives. Elle quickly reveals itself not as a thriller or revenge pic, but instead more of a bourgeoisie comedy of manners, a chic continental melodrama. And it’s genuinely funny, which only adds to the engrossing sense of unease.
As such, we the audience are constantly on guard on Michèle’s behalf. The film’s opening was too shocking, too loaded with significance to not provide the defining context for later events – but what will those events be? What significance? The longer we watch Michèle sashay through her high-functioning Parisian lifestyle, one eye looking over her shoulder yet curiously unruffled, the stronger the sensation that we are, gruesomely, waiting for something to happen. There are potential dangers everywhere, particularly in her workplace where unwholesome male attention is characterised as either blithely aggressive, in the case of a bullish young colleague who confronts her during a company meeting, or creepily smitten, as typified by a boyish designer who has been stockpiling images of her for extracurricular use. Is she almost inviting trouble when she declares to a roomful of colleagues, “le patron, c’est moi”?
We cannot forget that opening scene, the masked assailant, and as such are teased with just how lightly the whodunnit element is treated in the circumstances – not only by the narrative, but by Michèle herself, who may sleep with a hammer and try her hand at a shooting range, but who generally seems determined to continue her life as usual.
How can she remain so composed? Should she not be traumatised or profoundly changed in some way? Could it be that she was already desensitized to violence? It’s a rare thing for a film to make its audience quite so hyper-aware that they are judging every move that the protagonist makes. At the same time, she is not a protagonist passively awaiting judgement or propelled by a plot, but instead she is the most active player in a narrative ostensibly about victimisation.
As an audience we are goaded into continually re-evaluating Michèle’s behaviour and reactions. She confounds expectations by refusing to act in accordance with the generic conventions of female victim narratives; her appetite for sex, most strikingly, is undiminished and perhaps even enhanced, as when she attempts to seduce her neighbour at a dinner party where his wife is also present. She is capable of being incredibly cruel to those close to her, even if her naïve dolt of a son and her vacuous, needy mother are both presented as exasperating figures in wearying need of continual correction. It is apparent that Michèle wants to live life and not be defined by her experience of violence or the imposition of others’ needs.
Rather than using rape as a plot device to instantly recruit audience sympathy in service of a victim/revenge/‘woman scorned’ narrative, Verhoeven masterminds a more complex situation in which the audience are asked to confront their assumptions about how women are expected to react to violence and particularly sexual violence. A past master of employing hyper-ironic aesthetics (see Starship Troopers and Showgirls), he adopts in Elle the continental stylings of a visually lavish comedy of manners, challenging us to regard a woman’s reaction to rape as a matter of social decorum – one that is upended by Michèle’s highly idiosyncratic and sometimes downright unlikeable behaviour.
A conventional ‘message’ or ‘issue’ film would get the audience on board with the protagonist and ask them to identify with and agree with them. Elle is not so superficially righteous because Verhoeven has, presciently, never been interested in agreeability, favouring instead a gaudy and ironized postmodernism wherein the audience are forced to confront their own threshold for poor taste. Without the exploding bodies and outlandish effects of his previous, more genre-orientated work, that confrontational aspect to Elle is focussed entirely on the shifting interpersonal dynamics and the unreliable protagonist at its centre.
This would not be possible without the virtuoso performance of Isabelle Huppert. She is shrewd, stylish and compelling throughout; one moment she is impossibly arch, conveying so much with a glare or a flick of an eyebrow, and the next she is broiling with conflicting emotions to magnetic effect. The astonishing control of Huppert’s performance only adds to the sense of unease. Speaking in praise of Huppert, Verhoeven has declared, “No American actress would take on such an amoral movie.” In casting a screen icon, Verhoeven has added another complication: do we feel more attached to Huppert, and therefore more vengeful on her behalf? Or are we more willing to accept her as an outlier or ‘special case’ who we can assume will look after herself?
Huppert’s performance certainly furthers the case that Michèle does not need looking after and we could therefore infer a message from the film that, in society’s eyes, acts of violence perpetrated against women should not come to define them. Anthony Lane has written in The New Yorker that through her actions Michèle is “rebuking a society that would like to regard her as nothing but helpless prey” and that in her performance of the character Huppert is showing us “how to stand up for yourself in style.”
Yet this film does not trivialise the everyday threats of violence towards women; Michèle is living in a dangerous world. The pervasiveness of male entitlement is woven into the film, whether it be Michèle’s ex-husband only finally apologising for hitting her because he’s in a mood to reconnect after his own breakup, or the married man with whom she’s having an affair pressuring her into sex despite knowing that she has only recently been assaulted. These are brief instances, never emphasised but unmistakeably there. The male characters are invariably slaves to their weaknesses; Michèle may freely admit to being an opportunist, but they seem unable to help themselves.
Elle remains an amoral film because nobody, Michèle included, can be adjudged to have emerged in the right. There is no message and no answer. Elle is not a film that massages an existing moral position, rather a film that asks – demands, even – the audience to reflect on their conditioned responses to narrative and reject their assumptions about how people will or should act. Much has been made of the unreliable narrators proliferating on television in this golden age of high-end serialized drama, but what Elle gives us is an unreliable protagonist, someone free from the designation of storyteller, arbiter, or authority figure. It’s crucial in a post-truth cultural moment that the question posed by the unreliability of a protagonist is not, “Who do you trust?”, but instead, “Who are you to judge?” Ω