A funny thing can happen when a man tries to tell a woman's story. Some filmmakers (Woody Allen, for instance) gain acclaim for their handling of their female characters. When they do, it is because they create nuanced and realistic portraits of their female characters and the lives they live. For me, it remains an open question whether Paul Verhoven's Elle meets this standard. More than most, this is a film that is likely to divide.
Michèle Leblanc is the founder and head of a successful video game company, where her male employees range from adoring to loathing. When Michèle is raped in her home, the film becomes a sort of whodunit that casts an eye toward every male in the film. Because of Michèle's history, which includes a mass-murdering father, she chooses not to go to the police, which leaves the audience free to observe her interactions with the men around her and figure out who the rapist might be.
The men who are central to the film are her idiot son, her mass-murdering and now imprisoned father, a neighbor she is attracted to, an ex who remains in her life, her best friend's husband with whom she is having an affair, an employee who openly resents her and another employee who openly fawns over her. Through these men, and Michèle's interactions with them, the audience is supposed to piece together the character and different people could certainly have different reads on this ultimately complicated protagonist.
The first images of Michèle are brief snippets of the rape incident that dominates much of the narrative. After that, we see her in the office of the company she founded, totally in control and very much in charge. This juxtaposition serves as the bones of the film--as she is at once the helpless victim of an intruder, and an accomplished female entrepreneur who is decidedly sexually liberated. At every turn, you are supposed to feel like this is a woman who has chosen who she is going to be and nothing that happens around her alters the stony persona. Whether it is being mean to her mother or choosing to handle the rape on her own terms, the bottom line is Michèle is in charge.
That picture, however, is challenged by Verhoeven's desire to show her through her relationships with these men. Very little of Michèle's character is internally developed, as she becomes a reflection of the actions of the men around her. Perhaps this is some sort of meta-commentary, but if it is, something in the delivery feels off. When Michèle is ultimately rescued by a hapless man, any claim the film had on freeing women from traditionally sexist narratives are dead. As stated earlier, it is entirely possible to walk away with a different impression, but it would be hard for me to buy any argument that this film is brilliant.
At bottom, the most succinct summation of Verhoeven's work here is that it is a mildly entertaining film that carries on a few beats too long and makes some head-scratching choices. That puts it squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to contemporary cinema. Not good, not bad.
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