When a film tackles the serious subject of rape, it is most likely there will be negative reactions. It’s difficult to accurately navigate the various minefields of exploring the act of rape, rape culture and how a character might handle the after-effects of being attacked without raising a few eyebrows.
Recently, Huppert sat down with SheKnows to discuss the film Elle, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In Elle, Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a 40-something self-made woman who runs a video game company. When an intruder enters her home and rapes her, Michèle rationally embarks on a journey to find out the identity of her attacker, and questionably, elicit similar encounters with him. While Elle, according to Huppert, is meant to be read as a psychological exploration and not a social document, it’s difficult to divorce her character’s actions from their moral implications, leading to potential readings and reactions from viewers that these actions are a viable option in real life. This is just one of the reasons that Elle has been such an explosive film.
When asked if Huppert had personally received any criticism of Elle or her performance, she was quick to respond that she had not. “Oh no, no, by no means. I think that the movie is, on one hand, strong enough not to be given this kind of [criticism]. I think this movie has a great amount of integrity and [Paul] Verhoeven [the director of Elle] is smart enough to bring this kind of integrity to his subjects. So I never really received any witnessing or comments of that sort. Never, by no means. Just so there is no confusion between […] taking it as some way to legitimize rape or…no, no. The movie is beyond that.”
Huppert did not allude to having heard of the negative criticisms of Elle, but there have been some eyebrows raised because of the film since its release in 2016. Among the criticisms of Elle is the belief that it risks romanticizing rape in giving Michèle the power back by seeking a connection with her rapist. For others, like Variety critic Owen Gleiberman, Elle is a “sadomasochistic caveman version of sex-positive feminism” as told through the eyes of Verhoeven. The rawness of Elle in combination with is tricky tightrope walk between empowering and alienating Michèle post-rape is polarizing. That may be why it, along with Huppert’s fascinating performance, became such a talking point during the 2017 Oscar season.
But perhaps the divisiveness of the material and Huppert’s belief that this is in fact an important exploration of a woman’s psyche in regard to a controversial topic are what make Elle and the legend it has created so fascinating and timely. Huppert stated that Elle can even go so far as to be a cathartic viewing experience, especially for female viewers. “Yes it can be, because as a film it can be cathartic, as a book [Elle is adapted from Phillipe Djian’s novel Oh…] it can be cathartic because it gives more within its fantasy with something which is not likely to be real, so of course it can be cathartic. It excites your power of imagination and your fantasies. It’s like a dream or a nightmare, it gives excitement to your most unconventional part of your psyche or inner life, or these kinds of things. So yes, in a way, it is cathartic.”
For the female audience members, who are arguably the target audience for a film like Elle, dealing with one woman’s process of healing and understanding after a violent rape could certainly lend a new angle to our understanding of female rape victims. While the rape-revenge narrative in film to date is quite ripe, the cat-and-mouse tactics between Michèle and her rapist in Elle offer a different kind of viewing experience, one that is concentrated on keeping shame out of the equation and attempting to return control to Michèle.
The film is no doubt a complex study. Listening to Huppert discuss the film and how it could be read in a positive fashion (as opposed to the awe and horror that critics have foisted upon the film since its release) only adds to the complex narrative of Elle. One thing is clear after speaking to Huppert: The passion with which she believes this film is intended to be embraced rather than rejected is infectious.
Can’t get enough of Huppert? Here she is speaking more in depth about her controversial Elle role.
Elle is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.
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