Friday, October 14, 2016
NYFF Review: Rape Culture, Feminism, and the Imperfect ELLE
As the Internet continues to interrogate #rapeculture, U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's sexual assault allegations, and the vast number of men who "just don't get it," I find it rather uncomfortable to discuss a film whose storyline is centered around a violent rape sequence--that's replayed several times throughout the film. Does it matter that it uses the rape of a woman to illustrate her power over men?
Well, that's just what director Paul Verhoeven's cold as ice French drama, ELLE, attempts to do. And to some degree, it is quite engrossing to watch actress Isabelle Huppert as Michèle, an unlikable boss b*tch type, co-owner of a video game company with mostly male employees, react to her sexual assault--in her own house, mind you--by dismissing it altogether, referring to it only as an aside. I say unlikable because it's pivotal to note this about Michèle's character. It's clear that she equates being a victim to weakness, something she detests. And it doesn't stop there. She's what some may call a man-eater, a total nightmare to her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling)--tries to slash the windows of his car and make his new girlfriend's life hell--and her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) goes as far as to call her a "c*nt." Her testosterone-driven underlings at the office hate her yet bend over backwards to impress her-which isn't easy to do. She revels in the feeling of being intimidating, feared, and even loathed. And she's been doing everything she can to maintain this representation with no remorse ever since she was a child (when a particularly terrible series of events occurred). It emboldens her. That's why being assaulted in her own home, her castle, is so profound. And that's likely why Verhoeven forces his audience to relive it several times. It's distressing to see a crime that attempts to reduce the power of its fiercely powerful female victim, who also just so happens to be a hot middle aged woman.
But what does it mean when that crime fails to impair the woman's spirit, instead motivating her avenge her rape--not by reciprocating the crime but by finding, then abating and belittling the perpetrator? Does it weaken the crime if the threat of said crime recurring is null and void, but rather expected and desired--but only in an attempt to regain the the authority of the crime?
Verhoeven, with David Birke's script, explores each of these questions in a cantankerous yet slick thriller that provokes you to think about what feminism looks like when it's violated. But while ELLE relies heavily on the strength of its unlikable woman heroine, its relentless focus on Michèle's suffocating chill factor allows for no breathing room in the narrative--and breaks any connection it could have with the audience.
Rating: C (**1/2 out of *****)