Can rape and comedy ever go together? Elle's subversive portrayal blurs humour and horror

The film, which explores the unorthodox forms that power can take, shows Michèle continuing briskly with her life after she is assaulted in her apartment.

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With Elle, the Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has joined that small and not especially coveted group of directors who have placed “rape” and “comedy” in the same cinematic sentence. Pedro ­Almodóvar staged a slapstick rape scene in Kika, in which the jarring tone introduced an unreal, analytical quality: the victim even alerts her attacker, a porn star, to the implications of his actions. “This isn’t a film,” she points out. “This is an actual rape.”

In Elle, adapted by David Birke from the novel by Philippe Djian (who also wrote the book on which Betty Blue was based), it is not rape that is the hotbed of humour but the responses that it produces in Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), who is ambushed in her Paris apartment by a masked man. The violence is under way as the film starts, and we hear muffled screams and the breaking of crockery before we see anything. The first reaction shot goes to Michèle’s cat, which watches impassively before padding out of the room. It’s enough to make you a dog person.

The film, which explores the unorthodox forms that power can take, shows Michèle continuing briskly with her life. She sweeps up the mess. She orders a take­away. She slips into a bubble bath, where a tiny heart shape of blood materialises in the suds over her thighs. When she finally decides during dinner to tell her friends, the situation is richly comic. The arrival of the Piper-Heidsieck during the revelation would be bad enough without her fellow diner’s attempt at tact. “Wait a few moments before popping it,” he tells the sommelier.

Rape dramas can usually be divided into those that prioritise justice (The Accused) and those that are about vigilantism (Lipstick, Handgun), but Elle is neither. Michèle has her own reasons for not involving the police: some nasty business in her past. She goes to great lengths to uncover the identity of the rapist, who plagues her with menacing text messages, but when she gets her man halfway through the movie, it is not the result of any detective work on her part. Nor does it pave the way for a conventional power game. Farrah Fawcett captured and tortured her attacker in Extremities, but the reality here is more amorphous. Tables aren’t turned so much as chopped into kindling.

As the head of a video game company, Michèle works in an environment of sexualised aggression, in which her gift for compartmentalisation comes in handy. In the aftermath of the rape, she refers to “boner moments”, dismisses a new game because “the orgasmic convulsions are too timid” and demands that the player “must feel the blood on their hands”. It hardly needs saying that she is in no mood to play the victim.

But appearing to be passive after discovering the rapist’s identity, rather than pursuing revenge, becomes a way, for her, of controlling the situation. No one can help how they feel. How they react, though, is another matter, and Elle frustrates the usual thriller conventions by having a protagonist who asserts her dominance through means not limited to violence. In a wickedly funny, unpredictable performance, Huppert gives the impression at all times of someone who knows what she is doing, even when she doesn’t quite know why she is doing it.

Verhoeven has always been a master of perverseness and ambiguity. His last film, Black Book, was all shades of grey, the characters including a sweet, stamp-collecting Nazi and an anti-Semitic resistance fighter. There is more of that here, and fans will not be surprised to see that Catholicism is still getting it in the neck from him, as it has been since The Fourth Man, the lurid thriller that hastened his passage from Holland to Hollywood in the mid-1980s.

There is no knowing where the tonal shifts in Elle will take you. Violence and rage are set against the soothing colour scheme (creams, beiges, browns) of late-period Buñuel. When we overhear a focus group of video game enthusiasts being asked, “What do you feel now? Fear or anger?” it could be the director putting that question to his audience. An honest reply would be that Elle leaves you feeling shell-shocked, but also rather like you’ve been tickled. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda