Elle (2016)

My interest in Elle was sparked by a review I read previously by someone else that was written a while ago. It described Elle as a “rape-revenge comedy.” These are genres you just never expect to see together. The fact that the film was nominated for the Oscars and Golden Globes and a variety of other awards, suggests that somehow, Paul Verhoeven has managed to make this weird genre mesh-up work.

In preparation to write a review and some decent commentary on Elle I actually decided to do some prep work by reading up on the Rape-Revenge genre in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Chapter 3: Getting Even). While it was a good read and really enlightening, I was disappointed to find that the critical view she espouses is a little dated. While Clover focused on Rape-Revenge film texts like Last House on the Left (1972), Deliverance (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1977), etc., that made use of a city-country dynamic to underscore the onscreen conflicts, this was never the case in Elle.

Instead I found myself thinking that filmic representations of psychopaths as a way of reading Elle would be more relevant to the narrative Verhoeven was telling.

In a typical rape-revenge narrative, the film starts with the rape that is filmed in disconcerting detail with the camera’s gaze either lingering on the sexual violence or the act being edited into violent choppy cuts and then inserted into the narrative as sudden flashbacks that are as much an assault on the victim as it is on the audience because both are made to flinch and cringe every time they are ambushed with the rapist.

This is followed up by a planning or training period where the female character transforms herself from victim into avenging angel seeking vengeance for herself and/or for other female characters who’ve been similarly assaulted.

The narrative then culminates in a grisly conclusion where the bloodletting onscreen is orchestrated to reach the same bloody intensity as the psychic and physical violence of the rape.

Elle seems to have successfully flipped this narrative. There is no bloody conclusion, and very little preparation for vengeance. This is because there seems to be no victim. Or rather that the victim is so sociopathic that she doesn’t behave like one and doesn’t seem to see herself as a victim. And if she doesn’t think of herself as a victim, what right do we, the audience, have to think of her as one?

Instead, Verhoeven’s film seems to be very emphatically suggesting that despite all the syntactic elements of a rape-revenge narrative (including the rape, the purchase of the hatchet and the pepper spray, and the death-by-blugeoning of the rapist), Elle, semantically, is not about the same concerns. It is not about a woman rising up to avenge herself because she is not the disempowered individual in this narrative.

We see this in her day job where she is both an accomplished former publisher of literary works and current owner of a gaming company. We see this in her personal life where she is financially secure and the sole provider for her dependents (mother and son). And we see this in her deviant sexual preferences (for married men and willingness to enter into an S&M relationship with her rapist).

Furthermore, she doesn’t need to get her hands dirty to exact her revenge, by unmasking her rapist, stripping him of the anonymity that empowers him, naming him, and refusing to be the victim in violent sexual encounters, she unmans him almost literally by depriving him of his turn-on and his erection.

Thus, despite the backlash against this film based on claims that it trivialises or dismisses rape with its comedic undertones, the film can be read as a more progressive rape-revenge narrative instead.

This is based on two reasons firstly rape has been said to be more a crime of power rather than a sexual crime, and secondly, the rape-revenge narrative itself suffers from an undercurrent of victim-blaming that often slides under the radar given all the attention focused on the empowered female character who saves herself.

For revenge fantasies to work, there must be something worth avenging – something egregious enough to justify hideous retaliation. In the case of rape-revenge films, that something has to do not only with the rape, but with the power dynamic between men and women that makes rape happen in the first place, and in the second, that makes it so eminently avengeable.

-Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p144

In other words, the source of pleasure in the genre comes in part from the fact that the victim has been doubly raped. Firstly, by the fact that she is a victim everyday in various small ways as part of a society that privileges the patriarch and secondly, by the rape in the film. However, as Verhoeven so clearly sets up in Elle, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is never in a position of lower power except in the moment of the rape.

The other way in which Elle is a progressive rape-revenge narrative, is that embedded in the genre is an element of victim-blaming:

[It] must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a guy or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it.

Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p143

Thus in the case of Elle, the rape is an assault and an act of violence, yes, but it is an act between individuals of equal standing in society. Furthermore, the rape acts as a moment that pierces the veil that Michele has drawn over herself to mask her sociopathy.

In the narrative following the incident, we see her destroy her ex-husband’s car bumper with her car by backing into it repeatedly; leave a toothpick in her ex-husband’s new squeeze’s appetizer; come on to her neighbour who is a married man; deliberately destroy her best friend’s marriage by telling her that she has been sleeping with her husband just as they look like they’re getting back together; and various other small incidents like that. Thus the rape causes a rupture in the symbolic realm of Michele’s existence, forcing her to confront her past with her father who murdered 27 people, and get to grips with the reality of her character.

(Although… my fiance pointed out that all these little behaviours could be status quo for her and have nothing to do with the rape at all. I maintain that given the medium and where the narrative chose to start and where it ends, the rape is meant to give an additional layer of meaning to all her following behaviours.)

Thus, at the end of the day, despite all the trappings of the rape-revenge genre, this is not a rape revenge film. It’s more about two sociopaths going at one another.

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The Skin I Live In and the Rape-Revenge Narrative

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 horror film The Skin I Live In is a strangely muted experience that leaves audiences a little dumbstruck if not a little confused because of its treatment of the conventions of the Rape-Revenge narrative.

From the inciting incident in the garden at a wedding party to the multiple events of rape that occur throughout the narrative, the film has a disquieting, desensitizing effect on the idea of rape.

What is rape? Is what happened in the garden enough to constitute rape? Does it matter that the girl, unsocialized and excluded from society as she had been, was accidentally (mis)leading the guy on? Or what about the fact that he was high as a kite? What if he pulled out the moment he realized there was a miscommunication or showed remorse later on? Can these be considered ameliorating circumstances? If so, does the punishment fit the crime?

In a typical rape-revenge narrative there are the excruciatingly drawn out moments of sexual violence enacted on a helpless (female) individual followed by a sequence where the violated individual recovers after her ordeal and plans her revenge before going all-out on her attackers bringing the narrative to a bloody conclusion.

Almodóvar’s film problematizes this by softening the inciting incident by suggesting multiple ameliorating factors, having the avenging figure be a male character, and creating an elaborate revenge plot, that some would argue is much too severe for the crime in question, that simultaneously allows the turning of rape itself into the revenge, particularly the rape enacted on yet another female body. I suppose on one level it makes you wonder why rape-revenge is even a genre that exists and when we watch films that are part of this genre what are we watching them for? For the rape or the revenge?

I wanted to say something about the shared dream sequence too but it doesn’t seem to quite go with the rest of this post about rape-revenge narratives so I’ll save it for another time.