Elle oh Elle (oh)

Isabelle Huppert holding a black cat

Back in 1982, Barry Curtis mused extensively in BFI Dossier no. 17 on the eternal question of what happens when a sitcom isn’t funny. If only he’d waited 34 years for the arrival of Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge drama , he could have saved himself a lot of ink.

In France’s answer to , the features of a sitcom are all there. There’s long-suffering protagonist Michèle (Isabelle Huppert); her ageing mother (and heryoung fiancé); her son, and his girlfriend Josie (who is described as a ‘real menace’, probably because she dares to hold a few different opinions). Oh, and her ex-husband Richard, and his beautiful yoga-teaching, reading girlfriend Hélène, plus best friend Anna, with whose husband, Robert, Michèle is having an affair.

All of Michèle family seem to exist merely to annoy her, and it’s not hard to imagine them getting stuck in a lift together, setting fire to a banana stand, or receiving a surprise delivery of 263 garden gnomes. In a particularly sitcom-esque sequence, Michèle sees a car parked outside her house. Assuming it belongs to her assailant, she breaks the front window and pepper-sprays the driver, who is ultimately revealed to be a somewhat indignant and temporarily blinded Richard.

It is, of course, possible that Elle is intended as serious, provocative cinema, and much of the amusement derived from it is coincidental. However, comic moments are liberally sprinkled throughout, suggesting that it is intended primarily as satirical commentary on the French bourgeoisie, rather than a serious dive into its ostensible subject matter.

Shortly into the film, Michèle states in an almost completely unemotional tone that a man broke into her house and raped her. Then, after a few sharp intakes of breath around the table, Richard merely starts making some noises about the arrival of their fine champagne. Likewise, echoes of tried and tested representations of bourgeois superficiality and hypocrisy resonate when Michèle dismissively refers to awful, menacing Josie’s multiple boyfriends despite her own affair with her best friend’s husband. While the affair itself is addressed multiple times, the inherent irony never really is.

It’s easy at this point to wonder about the elephant in Michèle’s front room: or rather, the cat, observing and meowing. For a film clearly branded as a subversive subset of the rape-revenge genre, why take this detached and somewhat trivialising standpoint? The reason for doing so is that any serious comments about French bourgeois society, female sexual desire, and male violence against women, are ultimately overshadowed by the forced comedic tone and implausibility of all of the situations. Suspending disbelief does not work with , because whenever verisimilitude begins to take root, it is jarringly disrupted by characters who pop up inexplicably to prop up convenient but facile narrative changes of gear.

This really begs the question: why rape-revenge, Paul Verhoeven?

All of this goes to suggest that is not quite the sensitive exploration of betrayal and trauma that one might expect or hope for from the subject matter (and official trailer). With Verhoeven’s track record, though, this should not really have been a surprise.

If there is one good thing we can take from me watching five times in a row (other than getting to look at Isabelle Huppert’s beautiful face), it is that I am 100% certain that Barry Curtis now has good reason to consider publishing a revised edition of his essay. If he’s still alive.

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