Should you see 2017's most controversial film? Stylist speaks to Isabelle Huppert about her role in Elle

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Elle, a French drama about a vicious rape and its unexpected aftermath, has been acclaimed by critics while condemned by film-goers worldwide. Stylist explores the film’s complexities and speaks to lead actress Isabelle Huppert about the controversy

It’s a film that enjoyed a seven-minute standing ovation after it debuted at Cannes in May 2016, collected two Golden Globes in January and whose lead actress was nominated for an Oscar soon after. It has been revered by influential industry bibles such as Variety, and The New York Times’ film critic described it as “a masterpiece of suave perversity”. This would all suggest that Elle is a must-see – and yet the controversy the film has provoked among viewers (Stylist staffers included, one of whom chose to stop watching after 20 minutes) points at deeper issues. Is it an artistic triumph that challenges conventional attitudes to consent? A disgusting rape fantasy? Or an intriguing combination of the two? Should you spend 130 minutes of your time watching the most divisive film of 2017?

Twenty-nine years since award-winning film The Accused broke new ground in exploring society’s attitudes to rape and victim blaming, popular culture has struggled to address sexual assault in a sensitive yet realistic manner. Some TV shows – Poldark, Game Of Thrones – have come under fire for their portrayal, while more recently, Apple Tree Yard and Broadchurch have been applauded for their sensitivity and focus on the effects of rape rather than the act itself. Now comes Elle and the debate of whether it adds anything valuable to the canon or indeed, is little more than gratuitous sexual violence.

Opening with the violent rape of wealthy Parisian Michèle Leblanc (played by Isabelle Huppert) by a masked intruder, the film combines a challenging plot, confronting personalities and moments of outrageous black humour as it follows the unusual relationship that develops between Leblanc and her rapist after she discovers his identity and becomes attracted to him. It throws up confronting questions around consent and sexual role-play, as well as the idea of what society expects from a sexual assault victim.

Much has been made of Leblanc’s icy character and her reaction – or lack of – to being attacked. After her assailant leaves, she sweeps up the broken pottery, orders sushi, has a bath and carries on as if nothing has happened. She displays an almost pathological lack of emotion – not just around this experience but also when it comes to her high-powered job and friendships – and refuses to report the attack. It’s certainly uncomfortable viewing but many would argue this facet of the film should be applauded for challenging expectations of how a rape victim ‘should’ react.

“There is definitely an accepted narrative around the ideal victim and their behaviour in our societal response to rape,” says Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism. “The only blame should be with the perpetrator. I haven’t seen Elle, and I’m not sure I will, but there is no right or wrong way to react to an assault.” Discussion has also centred around the fact that Elle is based on a 2012 novel by a male author (Oh... by Philippe Djian) and is directed by another man, provocative 78-year-old Dutch director Paul Verhoeven [Basic Instinct, Showgirls], triggering accusations that the project is the result of male rape fantasies or “rape porn”. It’s something Verhoeven strongly denies. “I’m pro-women,” he told The Guardian last year. “I like women very much and, basically, I like strong women. I’ve been accused of being a feminist.”

It’s impossible to discuss this issue without considering how watching it affects those who have been victims of sexual violence. Writer and rape survivor Jenn Selby – who suffered years of crippling anxiety and depression after her assault and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects almost a third of rape survivors – is concerned about the film’s murky idea of consent. “The plot of Elle, and indeed the main character, present myriad ambiguous extremes which mean there’s more to the film than simply a macho rape fantasy. However, I worry about the boundaries between rape – a non-consensual act of violence – and consensual sexual role-play becoming confused. Around 85,000 women in England and Wales are raped every year. They can tell you plainly that love and violence are not the same thing. Sadly, rape exists in part because this fact is often ignored – and is further concealed by negative social messaging about male entitlement and female submission. I question the necessity of movies like Elle in a world in which the seemingly simple idea of consent is already so misunderstood.”

With its slew of awards and glowing reviews, Elle’s supporters argue that it challenges clichéd assumptions about trauma; critics believe it is a morally bankrupt movie that dangerously blurs the lines of rape and sexual coercion. But one thing is certain – it is a film that is impossible not to have an opinion on.

Award-winning French actress Isabelle Huppert, 63, tells Stylist why she has no regrets about starring in Elle

Did you have any reservations about taking on the role of Michèle Leblanc?
No, by no means at all. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone through with the film. You can’t do anything with reservations. I just did it in complete agreement. I thought it could be a great role and a great film because it’s a very strange story.

Elle’s director, Paul Verhoeven, calls the film ‘amoral’. Do you agree?
Oh yes. It doesn’t bother being politically correct. It’s certainly a story that’s not afraid to go to certain mental territories and explore [difficult] places in a person’s psyche: the most unconfessable, obscure, complex places. It deals with so many things: desire, sexuality, violence. The movie goes very far. It raises many questions; not only about the story of the assault itself, but about family ties, motherhood, friendship – it’s very complex.

The team behind the film tried to make it in America but couldn’t get any of the major actresses they approached there to take part. Can you understand why an actress might flinch at the script?
Yes, I can, maybe if they hadn’t read the book that it’s based on. I read the book [French novel Oh... by Philippe Dijan, who also wrote Betty Blue] first and having read it, I then knew more [about the character]. But I’m sure I wouldn’t have been reluctant to do it anyway, especially knowing that Paul Verhoeven was directing. I like the way he plays with people’s nerves, the way he puts you in a very unsettled situation both as an actor and as a spectator.

The film has certainly divided opinion...
A little bit but, you know, some movies are disturbing. It makes people think, it questions people, it makes people feel ill at ease sometimes, but I don’t think it’s divided people in such a drastic way that the movie has had a significant rejection. So far.

Many women (including some members of Stylist’s staff) found the film uncomfortable and thought that it glamorised sexual violence against females...
I don’t think it does in any way. But you can’t help people thinking what they think. I do believe there is a kind of integrity to the film because it’s not emotional. It’s more like an experiment, an existential experiment where this event happens and from then on, it’s like Michèle wants to learn something new about herself.

Do you think the problem is perhaps that people can’t help but have an emotional response to those graphic, violent sexual scenes?
Yes, but there have been violent, sexual scenes in films before. It’s not the first time. I don’t think that this film’s any more violent or uncomfortable. How can you speak about a woman being assaulted without showing the woman being assaulted? You just don’t have a movie any more.

Do you think it’s irresponsible to use rape as a way to explore extreme sexual fantasies?
The movie is by no means a sociological description of what happens in real life. There is this thing that happens to Michèle but it’s not supposed to describe a real situation. It’s more an explanation of some kind of fantasy.

Would you agree that Michèle is an unsympathetic character?
[Forcefully] No, no – on the contrary I think she’s a very touching character in her own way, even in her cold, non-emotional way. She deals with the event in a peculiar way but she also lives alone in this big house. She’s very brave and she’s very generous because she cares for people – all the relationships around her are harsh most of the time but she does care for people. For me, she’s more like a survivor. And for that reason, she goes beyond being likeable or unlikeable.

What drives you as an actress?
To work with certain people – people like Verhoeven – and to find a territory that’s as free as possible. This is all I care about. I’d be very unhappy working with people who wouldn’t allow me to be real. To be real is not always pleasant for everybody because life is not pleasant in the way you expect from fiction. It’s a bit more complex but it’s also more pleasurable and enjoyable, spiritually and emotionally.

Were you able to leave this film behind when the shoot wrapped?
Yes, it completely left me. If any of it has stayed, it’s for good reasons, I would say. The way Michèle has steel in her, the fact that she’s a woman in her home not being a victim... these things I keep, for the good.

Elle is in cinemas from 10 March

Interview By: Colin Crummy
Photography: Yann Rabanier/Modds/Camera Press