How are we to understand the rapturous reception leading film critics have given to Paul Verhoeven’s “rape comedy” Elle? The bad boy director, they tell us, “dares us to judge”, “explodes conventions”, “pushes buttons” and “subverts myths”. The judgement, the convention, the button, and the myth in question is that women do not like to be raped.
The critics write as if, by giving voice to a repressed desire, the film takes a hacksaw to the final shackle on female sexual expression. In a gushing 5-star review in the Guardian, Xan Brooks lauds the “Dutch provocateur” for slapping his audience in the face, hooking a set of jumper leads to our chests and giving us an “outrageous black comedy”, about rape.
Writing in Variety, Guy Lodge praises the film’s refusal to succumb to “essentialist conclusions”. If attitudes towards gender and sexuality (and everything else) are not fixities but social constructions, there can be nothing “essential” in women’s abhorrence at a vicious rape by a masked stranger.
For that is the inciting incident that kicks off the film. It opens with only a black screen but we hear the grunts and cries of rutting before cutting to the victim’s cat, who watches the attack with feline detachment. Verhoeven seems to dare us to adopt the same attitude.
The “victim” Michèle, played with unnerving authenticity by Isabelle Huppert, cleans herself up, washes her bleeding vagina and gets on with her life, which is to manage a videogames company that specialises in ultraviolent fantasies, such as one in which a roaring beast holds down a young woman and penetrates her convulsively with a phallic tentacle.
But hey, who are we to judge? Elle’s lesson is that women’s sexuality is more complicated than we might imagine. Verhoeven, writes Lodge, is “mapping one woman’s eccentric, sometimes inscrutable response to sexual assault.”
The dangers of this standpoint are too well known to bear repeating, yet this kind of post-modern anti-essentialism – according to which all moral judgements are merely expressions of opinion and so carry no social weight – is a prerequisite for today’s sophisticated film critic.
If auteur groupies can understand that one woman’s eccentric response does not transfer to all women, for the entitled college boys who chant “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal”, Elle may provide an excuse to append “and Rape Means More Please”.
Rape can set you free
Since the 1960s almost all taboos have been transgressed, disputed and discarded, but one pillar of sexual ethics has remained rock solid – consent. In Elle Verhoeven takes a sledgehammer to it. If it falls the rubble becomes a hunting ground for male carnality.
Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin brags she can “smell the fear” of reviewers less brave than herself, before expounding on how our feelings about sexual violence are just social conditioning (you know, like genital mutilation).
She predicts that those dull old feminists will take umbrage at the film. So far as I can tell, she’s the only critic artless enough to speak of how “empowering” it can be to be raped and then to lust after your rapist, although Jordan Mintzer, also writing in the Hollywood Reporter, interprets Elle as a story of how Michèle uses sex, violence and sadism to set herself free. Has feminism in America come to this?
Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that Michèle is really screwed up and needs help (her father is a serial killer and her mother is bonkers), Guy Lodge goes along with Verhoeven’s idea that the film is an exploration of Michèle’s “mass of conflicting intellectual, emotional and sexual impulses”, even when late in the film she leads her rapist knowingly into the dungeon he keeps beneath his house so that he can crack her head against the wall and rape her again.
This scene is no BDSM fantasy with a code word when it starts to hurt a bit, and one really has to ask how low Verhoeven’s transgressitis will take him when he hints that there might be another side to tell about the depravities of a Marc Detroux or Josef Fritzl.
Transgression is reactionary
Of course not all critics are determined to out-sophisticate the rest by refusing to judge. John Bleasdale wraps up his review in Cine Vue with a sharp observation on how the story of Elle concludes.
“There are very few emotional consequences, no one really cares about what has happened and the audience are encouraged to react with the same indifference perhaps as the cat that opened the movie. It might be far less easy for rape survivors in the audience to take the whole affair with such Gallic cool.”
What are we to make of those critics who can’t kick the habits of the 60s, whose minds are still stalked by the great ogre of sexual repression that keeps our impulses in check and must be defeated by transgression, provocation and ridicule?
Does anyone actually think western societies do not have enough opportunities for an almost limitless variety of sexual expression?
The truth is that Elle-style transgression is a post-modern cliché perfectly suited to Cannes and the critics who worship there. More than that, it’s reactionary. In a world of hyper-consumerism, pervasive surveillance, climate apocalypse and corporate control of politics, who now really believes that “freeing” individuals by challenging remnant sexual taboos is the path to liberation?
It’s not us, the cinema-goers, whose rules need to be transgressed but those of the system of global power. For my money, the transgressions of Edward Snowden make Paul Verhoeven’s look like child’s play.