2016 has seen a strong offering of female-centric narratives. But does a female-centric narrative immediately qualify as feminist? Hidden Figures and 20th Century Women empower, whilst I, Olga Hepnarova and Jackie approach trauma and mental health issues without resorting to melodrama. Some from female voices, like Baden Baden, Toni Erdmann and Raw, allow an honest approach to female sexuality and identity. Yet as Angelica Jade Bastién argues in The Outline, as much as representation should be celebrated, we should remain critical before hailing everything as feminist. At the same time, we should question what feminism means, especially among trans (and non binary) exclusionary communities.
To entrust a female-centric narrative to Paul Verhoven opens questions. Verhoven is a provocateur, eroticising female bodies and sexualities in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). Verhoven has license to tell the narratives he wants to. But he also doesn’t. His perspective, as male gaze, will never be the same as a female perspective, never knowing the everyday, subliminal manifestations of sexism. Verhoven has power to abuse. In her video essay Consent in Cinema, Ivana Brehas questions Sharon Stone’s genital exposure in Basic Instinct, filmed without consent or preparation.
To depict women in film walks a complicated tightrope. As sexualised heroine? As chick flick/rom com office worker pining over men? Sexual trophy? Victim? The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) invoke rape and trauma as both exploitation and female empowerment – fantasy for the male gaze, or feminist wish fulfilment? Fatal Attraction (1987) presents Alex, as victim of mental health issues and depression, as femme fatale and murderer to be tamed. The films of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma offer superficial critiques of femininity, whilst conforming to negative stereotypes. Serial killers becomes otherised as creepy guys in the shadows, whose actions can be excused through mental health issues.
Verhoven never depicts Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) rape as eroticised or explicit; Elle is not pornography. There may be an occasional flash of a nipple, but Verhoven doesn’t glorify. But it remains impossible to watch: how can one voyeuristically place eye on screen as a woman is victimised and abused? Verhoven still otherises the rapist: though we discover his identity later on, he becomes defined by nothingness, dressed in black leather fetish wear and ski mask; we know only his eyes. Verhoven attempts to subvert the tropes of the female rape-revenge fantasy, and question his own culpability in representing women on screen, yet his gaze does not go away. As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker:
[Verhoven] displays no imagination because he’s uninterested in Michèle except as a tool for his problem set, for his message mechanism, for his facile issue-mongering, issue-muddying provocation.
Rape is not uncommon, but institutionally and structurally common. Criminal wrongdoing becomes excused because of alcohol, or marriage, or the provocation of a dress, or lack of pushback. Rapists remain venerated as movie stars and YouTubers, their accusers met with suspicion. For male and queer victims of sexual abuse, these facts are made more invisible. Meanwhile, rapists like Brock Turner are allowed to have prison sentences reduced to 3 months, or never charged at all. The bankrupt Detroit has only begun to process a backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits dating back to the nineties.
Rape happens behind closed doors, between the sheets, in locker rooms, in prisons, in churches, in refugee camps, in dorms, in back alleys, in three-thousand-dollar per night luxury hotel suites. It happens between the powerful and the weak, between men and women, men and boys, husbands and wives, adults and children, strangers and lovers, between ordinary people like you and me. You might say you’re just having a little fun, horsing around, hooking up. Sometimes there’s a knife or gun. Sometimes there’s a kiss. It isn’t so easy to tell lie from truth, intention from mistake.
When I was fifteen, I was raped. I never knew it at the time. I was never assaulted, never screamed, he was never a stranger. I defended it, bragged about it to friends, accepted it as my first time. I felt no power to say no, for fear of offending him. I felt no power to speak to friends about it, fearing stirring the pot. It took me years to acknowledge it as rape; he never allowed me to consent.
Michèle responds to her assault casually, moving on with life. She is already empowered, working as CEO of a video game company in a male-dominated environment. We see her discouragement from going to police. In a restaurant, Michèle finds confidence to matter-of-factly confess to family and friends her rape. Immediately, they insist she go to police, never realising everything is stacked against the victim. Why become spectacle to media attention and tabloid headlines, investing time and energy in a futile court case? Michèle’s fears are justified, as the daughter of imprisoned serial killer Georges Leblanc: an event she maintains some responsibility for, still sensationalised in TV documentaries. Michèle becomes subject to the sins of the father, unable to escape his legacy. Yet these issues affect all women, not just sufferers of childhood trauma.
Michèle’s harassment may seem unbearable, yet women bear it every single day, from unsolicited dickpics to eroticising comments from strangers. Michèle receives threatening text messages from her neighbour, and returns home to find her house broken into, her bed covered in a stranger’s cum.
Verhoven complicates Michèle’s rape, developing a sadomasochistic relationship with her rapist, leaving open questions of empowerment. Again, this is not uncommon. Maintaining a friendship with a rapist happens. To be raped more than once happens. Verhoven argues to Little White Lies that “the moment she discovers who the rapist is, American cinema and philosophy dictates it would have to be a revenge movie.” Yet many women are never afforded the power to assert revenge.
Though Verhoven does little to indict the power of cinema in asserting negative images of women, he finds another target: video games, using it as a “perfect metaphor for complicity in screen violence”. The games Michèle develop conform to the male gaze, placing the viewer inside a Cthulhu-esque rape, controlled by the (male) gamer. Michèle asks the developers to make it more orgasmic, complicit within her own oppression. Michèle is not a feminist, but acts within the parameters set by a male-dominated industry. The sequence is remixed by a male co-worker, editing her face onto the victim’s avatar, highlighting the contradiction that Michèle remains blind to. When Michèle bribes a techy co-worker to discover the culprit, she finds he was the culprit all along.
Michèle is not innocent, or even a nice character. She drives her car into a neighbouring vehicle, in lieu of an empty space. She repeatedly rejects her mother’s potential partners. Michèle weaponises her sexuality in self-defence, yet this is not enough. She trains herself at the shooting range with a gun; keeps a hammer next to her pillow; carries pepper spray; looks in a store to protect herself. Unable to escape the incident, her memories are visceral: she fantasises about what she could have done, imagining crushing his skull in. Her cat, just as the viewer, watches on, complicit in the male gaze.
But Michèle is never afforded the possibility of her fantasy. Vincent attacks him, crushing his skull in as in her fantasy, affording the heroic rape-revenge scene to a man, manifesting patriarchal power systems more deeply.
Despite the trauma, Michèle does not close into a shell, but asserts sexual autonomy. We see her pressured into jerking off a co-worker in the office out of the blue, finishing in a bin. Michèle never becomes submissive, asserting power, in spite of male presence. As she spies through her window a la Rear Window (1954), she masturbates; spends time in the bath; masturbates a guy at the dinner table with a foot; maintains an affair with a friend’s partner, meeting together at a hotel. This honesty evokes the honesty of female sexuality in Toni Erdmann, where we see Winfried take pleasure in instructing her partner to climax over a petit fours.
At points, Elle has the vibe of a 1970s sex comedy, with the mundanity and ridiculousness of the sexual lives of Michèle, her mum and her friends. But sex comedy largely privileges male voices and female objectification, disseminating problematic ideologies, than allowing feminist voices. Elle struggles to become entertainment; like with the child abuse scandal of The Hunt (2012), the viewer is left with a constant sense of unease. In spite of its efforts at female empowerment, it remains problematic. The fact Elle lost an Oscar is a promising sign.