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by Rose Finlay

Paul Verhoeven,  France/Germany/Belgium

There are disturbing  films, funny films, and suspenseful films, but it is rare to come across one  which manages to combine all three of these genres together so seamlessly and  successfully. ELLE begins with a black screen and the sounds of what seems to  be an erotic encounter. This assumption is quickly ripped away as we are thrown  into the dramatic aftermath of a violent rape. The victim is Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), Elle to her friends,  who slowly brushes herself off, cleans up the mess, and continues on with her  life. Indeed, victim seems a strange word for a woman so self-sufficient and  determined to deal with this traumatic event as though it was no more important  than a minor injury. She informs her friends casually when they are out to  dinner, and while they are shocked, she is more than ready to move on. She told  them because she thought it might be important for them to know, not because  she was looking for sympathy or help. But the truth is that the rape has  affected her; she sleeps with weapons, changes the locks on the doors, and  starts to search for her rapist. It is then through this lens that we see the  men in her life: her ex-husband with whom she is still friends but had to divorce  for hitting her, her best friend's husband with whom she has been having sex  and who seems particularly callous by asking for sexual favors soon after  learning of her assault, the misogynist men of her workplace who may or may not  hate her enough to do such a violent act. Every man is a suspect, but this does  not stop her from living her life with humor and erotic encounters with her  attractive neighbor. Elle is a conundrum, she is a complicated woman who makes  no apologies for her brazenness, and is far more than her rape. This comes to a  climax in the second half of the film when she takes the victim narrative and  completely turns it on its head in a most unexpected twist.

The character of Elle is pivotal for the success of the film and  Isabelle Huppert puts on one of the best performances of the year with her  portrayal of her. There is a common problem when rape is used as a plot device  as it often denigrates the female character to nothing more than an object to  further the story. However, where ELLEsucceeds  is by making it a catalyst to the story, but not the definition of the  character. Elle is so much more than this one event, and in the end she is so  strong (and twisted) that she takes control of her trauma and owns it. It  raises the question about how much of our opinion on how women should react to  such a trauma is influenced by media narratives. Elle is not a stereotype, and  in a way that is more shocking than anything else.