Forget the male or female gaze: Elle, the new film from director Paul Verhoeven, begins from the literal perspective of a cat. The film opens on a shot of a black cat watching dispassionately as its owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a well-to-do Parisian video game producer, is brutally raped by an intruder to her Parisian apartment. (Later in this strange hybrid of a psychological thriller, Michèle jokes that the cat could have at least scratched the guy.) American critics have been predictably muted on whether the feline perspective is problematic—it’s pretty harsh that the initial proxy for viewers is an animal with characteristic calm during a brutal assault—instead, all the talk has centered on whether it’s troublesome that Elle is a movie about the aftermath of a woman’s rape that was written and directed by two men, and based on a book by another.
Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff felt the film went too far in trying to make viewers experience “at least a twinge of sympathy for rapists," a sign, he argued, of its creator’s gender. In Jezebel, Joanna Rothkopf criticized the film for using rape as motivation for a woman to symbolically enact justice—a woman might portray it as a more random incident (nearly one in five women report experiencing sexual assaults in their lifetimes): “Not every film about violence against women needs to be moralizing or taking some kind of stance, and, in fact, I’d prefer that.” (Though the two clearly disagreed on the ways in which the male perspective manifests in the movie, both were critical of its content.)
That perspective matters, because others claim that the film’s gender politics will resonate with female viewers post-2016 election. Time’s Belinda Luscombe posited that the film’s articulation of fear of female power helps “explain the election”; when the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn wrote that “no new movie is bound to generate a dialogue about rape culture and victimhood” as Elle.
And yet, the movie’s hardly a totally masculine creation. It stars Huppert, sometimes called “the Meryl Streep of France”—and one of cinema’s most iconic, creatively proactive provocatrices, a woman who could green-light a movie merely by agreeing to star in it. That’s no exaggeration in the case of Elle: The author of the book on which the film was based, Djian, told her that he had her in mind when he originally wrote the character. Verhoeven, who had trouble getting American actresses interested in the part, has previously said the movie would probably not exist unless Huppert had expressed interest. “No American actress would take on such an amoral movie,” he told the Guardian in May. And in a roundtable discussion about the film on Monday with Pacific Standard and four other publications at her hotel in Beverly Hills, Huppert said she was given a major part to play in authoring the character too.
As she took sips from a coffee mug, the 63-year-old actress, clad in a trim jacket with abstract leaf-like details that brought out the green in her eyes, said she and Verhoeven never discussed any psychological motivations—nothing but the character’s clothes. “At some point, he said, ‘She’s a woman, she certainly knows more than I would.’ He let me take the material and shape it the way I wanted,” Huppert said. This is a familiar refrain: Last month, at the New York Film Festival, Huppert described the film as a “documentary about a woman” enabled by Verhoeven’s open approach to his actors.
Huppert noted at the roundtable that her acting process always involves fusing her own personality into the character, anyway, which gave the seemingly apathetic Michèle more realistically feminine qualities and responses. “It’s probably the same way I react to my own world myself, just saying ‘OK, big deal,’” she said.
Huppert has played plenty of complicated women before—an abortionist in Story of Women; a teacher who has an affair with a teenage boy in The Piano Teacher; a mother who takes pornographic pictures of her child in My Little Princess. As the rare powerful actress in her 60s whose presence can justify a film, she can play a significant role in busting stereotypes.
Huppert crafted Michèle’s response to her rape in order to reflect her specific character’s backstory. “Of course, not everybody even who has been through what she has been through would react in the same way,” she said at the roundtable. As Huppert underscored it, her cat-and-mouse game with her rapist was a reflection of Michèle’s intellectual curiosity about the nature of violence, not masochistic or sadomasochistic tendencies, as some critics have suggested.
Her Michèle was created with the intent to run against the stereotype of the “Strong Female Character,” a title some critics have given to brawny female side characters who do not play a major role in moving the plot forward in a movie. Michèle is present in every scene in the film. “She’s not a victim, that’s for sure, so for that she is a feminist character, but she does not fall also into the caricature of the avenger stalking the guy, shooting the guy and taking the gun,” Huppert said. “More like when women want to take the tools of a man to take vengeance. She’s beyond that.”
That’s a note that resonates in the context for the film’s American release—the film premiered stateside three days after a 2016 presidential election that saw 11 women step forward with accusations that Donald Trump inappropriately touched or kissed them, along with a new accusation against former president Bill Clinton. The systemic nature of sexual assault and power struggle inherent in these incidents is a theme threaded throughout Elle. A woman is stalked, harassed, and assaulted by a man close to her; she does not entrust the authorities with that information; she finally deals with it on her own.
As for the film’s unintentional contemporary resonance with women, Huppert notes, credit should be given to her male collaborators. “I think that the most disturbing part about it, and I’m not denying it, is that it can be taken as a fairy tale but it’s so realistic in the same way,” she said. “That’s Verhoeven. And that’s Philippe Djian.” (Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Black Book, is known not to tamp down on violence; Djian’s prose has been described by Le Figaro as having a “wild side.”)
When I asked her directly what she hoped viewers would talk about in today’s American context, Huppert highlighted the value in the film’s unremitting violence. “I think the film is very clear about that,” she said. “A rape is a rape, and it’s very brutal. And Verhoeven shows it as something very, very brutal that shouldn’t be excused in any case.”
Those depictions of brutality won’t sit well with everyone: The initial rape scene is repeated in flashbacks; the rapist, again masked, attacks her in three more sexual encounters (by my count); one of Michèle’s employees creates a graphic video imagining her rape; her rapist sends threatening messages to her phone and leaves one in her home.
But Huppert said she wouldn’t have gotten involved in the project otherwise. “Her willing[ness] to understand that violence makes her stronger than the violence itself,” Huppert said, referring to her character Michèle. “In a way, that’s how she remains untouched by the violence. Because she wants to understand where the violence comes from.”