Monday, May 1, 2017

Elle

"Rape is not an act of sex, it's an act of violence" was an oft heard quote as I was growing up.  Be it a talk show or a school counselor lecturing our class. No thin line in between.   But I also heard that some women  entertained rape fantasies, enjoyed being dominated, even if injury occurred and blood was drawn.  Parisian exec Michele Leblanc is raped in her home one afternoon.  She gets up not too many seconds after her attacker flees, clearly shaken but seemingly more concerned with the shards of broken glass and other mess that surrounds her.  When she takes a bath a few scenes later, she nonchalantly bats away the pool of blood that eminates from her vagina.

Michele seems barely fazed by this event.  She does not report it to the police, and even takes her time revealing it to her friends, who respond with disbelief and horror.  Is Michele one of those women who enjoys being violated? She screams and kicks while it happens.  Later, she daydreams that she bludgeons and kills her rapist. Pepper spray and a small axe are purchased.  Maybe she is not one of those people.  But how does she feel about it? Does she feel anything?

Isabelle Huppert plays the central character in 2016's ELLE as a hard, unsentimental Type A who doesn't betray much to her family and confidants.  At least, not what's really happening within her psyche.  Michele's life has been littered with tragedy.  Her father was a serial killer who took his ten year old daughter along for the carnage.  How does one emerge unscathed from such a history? How does it affect your morality, your concern for others? Michele is not the most moral individual - she has an affair with her business partner's boyfriend and flirts with her neighbor, who is married to a devout Catholic woman.  She also repeatedly mocks her elderly mother and her decision to carry on with a much younger lover.

Huppert, a sixty-something convincingly playing a fifty-something, is magnificent.  Never once do we find her trite, caricatured.  Credit David Birke's multidimensional character sketch, but the actress fleshes it out so as to make her vividly real.  Many viewers will be disgusted with Michele's tendency to humiliate others, to disregard fidelity. To almost flaunt double standards. She unapologetically admits her affair to her co-worker.  When asked by her why she did it, Michele replies that she simply wanted to get laid.  Nothing on her face suggests remorse.

Nor did it (or anything else) show during a revealing scene when Michelle is viewed playing lifeless, frigid, and utterly disinterested as that boyfriend thrusts on top of her.  Her lover, he little more than a boastful, primal being with a fragile ego, raves at how "brilliant" Michele was, pretending she was bored.  Right.   Would his manhood be threatened otherwise? Would he be unable to perform if Michelle actually engaged herself in the act of intercourse?

Some may call Michele a bitch on wheels.  She probably wouldn't argue with that.  But she's no less hard on herself.

And you don't have to like Michele.  It may affect your ability to relate to her at times.  I don't need to like or root for movie protagonists. I'm more interested in flawed individuals.   Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven create not some man's cliched idea of a victim, but rather a truly fascinating character who has steeled herself so thoroughly even a brutal sexual assault will not interrupt her plans for take out. She still has a business to run.  Does that make her inhuman?  She is not like the mute rape victim in MS. 45, shooting every male she encounters afterward.  Michele will not give her unwanted visitor or anyone else that much control.  That seems to be what it's about for her.

ELLE is also about consent.  Certainly, Michele did not offer such to the man in the ski mask.  But as the screenplay gels with several (perhaps too many) story threads and characters, "consent" transforms into a far more complex idea.  The movie goes into many unexpected directions.  The whodunit angle is the weakest of the screenplay; the identity of the rapist (revealed long before the finale) should be fairly obvious.  And once we learn who he is, the film really takes flight in examining submissive and dominant roles.  Of a man's power, and how it can evaporate when his victim turns the table - not by fighting back, but encouraging the aggression.  Not responding as a cowering victim.  To what end? You see a theme? This is not a typical revenge picture.

Verhoeven is known for audacious movies.  From his early Dutch art house to his American hits and beyond, he has never shied from explicit content or controversial points of view.  In ELLE, he restrains himself to some degree (the rape scenes, while highly unpleasant, are not filmed for sensationalism), but allows his fearless outlook to explore themes and behaviors you would not see in a Lifetime movie with this subject matter.  Huppert is a perfect match for him.  Despite its imperfections, ELLE is a film with which they should be quite proud.

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