Life

A rape survivor shares her views on Paul Verhoeven’s Elle

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle isn’t your ordinary blockbuster hit, but it’s likely to rack up the numbers in the box office. Not because the central themes – sexual assault, sociopathy, adultery and rape fantasy – make a hit, but for entirely the opposite reason. Because they are amongst the most controversial a film can broach.

The film was lauded by many critics as a masterpiece – a US female film reviewer declared it ‘one of the smartest films about consent I’ve ever seen’ - when it debuted at Cannes in May 2016, it was awarded two Golden Globes in January this year, and Isabelle Huppert was nominated for the Best Actress accolade for her role as the eponymous Elle, at the Academy Awards.



And yet some people’s responses have not been quite as positive, with many terming it misogynistic, phoney, and referencing that is a female subject viewed through the eyes of men (it was directed by a man, based on a book by a male author). Huppert herself told Stylist it was “an exploration of some kind of fantasy.”

Here, writer Jenn Selby, a survivor of rape, watched the film and provides her thoughts.

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Some have termed the film 'misogynistic' and 'phoney.'

The plot of Elle, and indeed the main character, Michéle Leblanc, played so hauntingly by Isabelle Hubbert, present myriad ambiguous extremes which mean there’s more to the film than simply a macho rape fantasy. However, as a survivor of rape myself, I worry about the boundaries between rape – a non-consensual act of violence – and consensual sexual role-play becoming confused.  

The story is about as realistic as Pete’s Dragon – and should be regarded as such.

My rape wasn’t a bit like Michéle’s. For me, it was an almost out-of-body experience. Confused and detached, I lay frozen in fear, only stirred to the horror – and realisation that my attacker was someone I knew – by a set of footsteps walking past my head. The aftermath was one of deep shock, shame, disbelief and isolation, followed by years of crippling anxiety, depression and nightmares. I was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a debilitating condition that affects almost a third of rape survivors.



In contrast, Michéle’s attack – and indeed her entire life story – is rather more incredible. A masked assailant breaks into her Parisian home, beats her and rapes her. When her attacker leaves she sweeps up the broken pottery, has a bath and carries on as if nothing has happened. She is romantically stoic, unflinching in the face of graphic sexual imagery most recent survivors would have found triggering. She displays an almost pathological lack of emotion around the experience; a coldness I struggle to relate to. It later transpires she is deeply disturbed from a violent event in her childhood linked to mass murders her father, a serial killer, committed in the 70s. We as the audience are left to speculate whether this could be an explanation for her aloofness.

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It’s worth mentioning here that no one’s response to trauma is the same. There is no ‘normal’; no recovery timescale; no specified code of conduct. Therefore to describe Michéle’s reaction to the experience as unrealistic would be inaccurate. The film becomes problematic, however, when Michéle finds out her attacker is someone she knows and is attracted to. She courts a dangerous, masochistic relationship with the assailant and actively consents to role-play in a series of rape scenarios with him. In terms of everyday life, the story is about as realistic as Pete’s Dragon – and should be regarded as such.

My worry is that it won’t be.

I question the necessity of movies like Elle in a world in which the seemingly simple idea of consent is already so misunderstood.

One in six women in the UK have experienced rape. They can tell you plainly that love and violence are not the same thing. A primary-school-aged child should be able to tell you 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. Films like Elle do little to alleviate this.

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Perhaps figures like Verhoeven could take some inspiration from the director of BBC’s recent drama, Apple Tree Yard, Jessica Hobbs.

Sure, the rape scene in the series was graphic and nasty. Rape is graphic and nasty and feels ten times worse in real life as it does watching it on screen, I can assure you. But the focus in the episode was on the aftermath. It’s on the lasting impact on the character, on her family and her friends. That ripple effect that quietly laps at the fabrics of our communities, that seeps into wider society and becomes part of the fettered norm.  It’s all very well to make mind-bending cinema designed to unnerve and challenge the audience. But what value does this really add to our understanding of anything, least of all rape?

I question the necessity of movies like Elle in a world in which the seemingly simple idea of consent is already so misunderstood.

Images: Elle