In the very first scene of Elle, we are introduced to our lead character being raped inside her home as her pet cat looks on. After the masked offender walks out, Michèle cleans up the mess and calmly takes a bath. You would think that the next few scenes would involve Michèle going to the police and eventually taking matters into her own hands once the investigation goes nowhere, but you’d only be half right. Not only does Michèle not even bother going to the police, but she continues on with her life almost as if nothing really happened. Just a few hours after the attack, we see her ordering food and meeting up with her son Vincent at her home. When Vincent asks how she got her bruises, she waves it off and makes up a lie about falling on her bike.
And this is where the film truly begins. This is not some simple tale about revenge nor is it a melancholic character study of a victim trying to deal with a traumatic event. It’s a story about a complicated person living a complicated life, and if you were assuming that she would react in any logical way after getting attacked, it becomes clear very early on that this will not be the case.
It’s not even a matter of Michèle being in shock or in a state of denial. Apart from suspecting one of her disgruntled employees as being her attacker and buying weapons to defend herself (a pepper spray and, unusually, a small axe), her life goes on normally. This is only interrupted at times when her attacker sends her lewd, taunting messages, which she treats almost like messages from an annoying telemarketer instead of a violent rapist.
The brilliance of Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller is that it goes in completely unexpected territory. The film does this by not ignoring the rest of the people in Michèle’s life. We find out that she’s still in friendly terms with her ex-husband, that her son is moving into a new place with his girlfriend, and that her mother is dating a significantly younger man. But most importantly, we also find out that Michèle is by no means a saintly, innocent figure. She casually destroys her ex-husband’s car, is actively having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and is slowly forming a plan to seduce her married neighbor. The film doesn’t treat the revolving door of supporting characters as mere B-storylines. They are every bit as important to the film because in many ways, this is a slice-of-life film about Michèle. It just so happens that the slice of her life that we’re seeing starts with a violent attack.
Most films follow a straightforward narrative path. Every character or storyline that doesn’t directly affect the main plot is excised out of necessity, but Elle approaches filmmaking in the opposite direction. It actively includes all the seemingly unnecessary parts of the story and shines the light on them, which adds so much depth and complexity to the entirety of the film. We don’t just follow Michèle’s strange sexual journey. We also follow her son’s denial about taking care of a child that isn’t his, her husband’s new relationship, her employees’ frustrations at her, and her struggle to face her serial killer father who’s rotting away in prison.
You’d think that following a series of storylines that don’t necessarily have much to do with one another would result in a disjointed mess of a film, but this is where the biggest surprise of the film comes: it isn’t a mess. Nor does it feel like a stilted experimental film that’s more interested in breaking the rules than telling a good story. It’s a brisk, versatile film that is brimming with so much life, energy, and humour. Even more impressive is how director Paul Verhoeven seems to do it with such an easy confidence, as if this was actually the normal way that every film story is told. Most films only show supporting characters that are relevant both to the lead and to the story. In Elle, we follow everyone around Michèle’s life and none of them exist solely to serve as a plot point.
This method of storytelling obviously won’t work for just any other movie. There’s a reason why Elle is an exception and not the rule. Not even simple character dramas can effectively do what Paul Verhoeven does in this film, because Elle is about a person whose motivations are a complete mystery to us. Following the other people in Michèle’s life and seeing how she interacts with them works as a way to give us a hint as to what her motivations could possibly be. If we see what she’s like with other people, perhaps we can understand why she’s reacting the way she does after getting raped. Maybe we can understand why she still doesn’t go to the police even after she finds out who her attacker is. Moreover, maybe we can understand why she actively seeks out her attacker’s company after she discovers his identity and starts a twisted affair with him. Is it because she was already attracted to him before she found out that he was the masked rapist? Is it because getting raped awakened a sexual fetish in her that only her attacker can fulfill? Perhaps it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Or was she just biding her time until the right moment to get her revenge?
The answer isn’t simple. It could be for all those reasons. It could be none. The film doesn’t make it clear, and even analyzing the series of events that lead to the climax from a logical point of view results in a muddled non-answer. This is why Isabelle Huppert’s performance has been so rightfully praised numerous times over. It is undeniably the work of such a skilled performer to be able to convey everything and nothing at the same time. Huppert plays Michèle in such a way that not even her performance gives the answers away. Despite getting to see her in intimate moments and how she treats the people around her, we ultimately don’t know much about her at the end of the day.
When the film ends, we are left with only questions, but still utterly satisfied at the whole experience. As we see Michèle and her best friend figuratively walk into the sunset, almost hand-in-hand and still best friends even after Michèle’s tactless admission of sleeping with her best friend’s husband, we can’t help but realize that the people around Michèle are almost as mysterious as her. We’re not really meant to understand why anyone chooses to do anything or act the way they do. We can empathize and develop close relationships with others, but that’s as far as we can go. After all, if someone can understand all of your own thoughts and motivations, you probably won’t be too eager to spend much time with them for fear of discovering what they might find.