“Autobiographies of Violence”
For years, the films of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven have been dogged in academic circles by their hyper-violence. In Hollywood films like Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), the Fascist nature of the violence within the plot is so graphically drawn that it begins to seem as if the special effects and their subsequent visceral effects in the audience encourage violence rather than critique it. This, of course, cannot be Verhoeven’s intention, raised under the Nazi occupation in Holland, and as a Dutch filmmaker, in the 1970s, having made a sparkling film about the Dutch resistance, Soldier of Orange (1977).
In his latest film, Elle (2016), Verhoeven does not retreat from the ambiguities of the violence in his big budget American films, but instead doubles down on them. The French-language film stars Isabelle Huppert as Michele, the adult daughter of an unstable father jailed long ago for a crime spree in which he killed dozens of people. As a result, Michele has grown up to become someone cold and indifferent to the suffering of others. When she learns that her son’s pregnant girlfriend has gone into labor prematurely, and is in intense pain, she barely responds, instead turning away from her family members to go find a cup of coffee.
In the first sequence of the film, we witness the aftermath of Michele getting raped in her home by a masked burglar. After the assailant leaves, Michele under-reacts, calmly sweeping up the shards of china that have fallen to the floor during the assault. Shortly thereafter, we see Michele at work. She and her friend, Anna run a successful video game company. The entirely male staff of computer programmers have designed a viciously sexist and violent game. In the test screening room, the workers watch a scene from the game in which a gigantic orc sprouts tentacles and impales a young woman in the head. After the screening is over, Michele berates her workers, not for their excess, but because the “orgasmic convulsions” are not exciting enough.
One of the computer programmers, Kurt similarly responds not by berating the game’s violence and sexism, but complaining about the poor quality of the controller. He argues that until they fix that hardware, all of this fretting about the content is pointless. Kurt blames Michele’s background in literature (her ex-husband is a literary critic), not appearing to notice that no contemporary literary scholar would ignore the game’s horrifying sexism.
This proves Verhoeven’s most canny intervention into the criticism of his films, a stance that insists on a difference between reality and representation, cutting against academic feminist dogma which often conflates the two. At a later point in the film, Michele worries that her ex-husband’s new girlfriend has pegged her as Medea, the scorned ex-wife who plots the death of all around her in vengeance, ultimately murdering her two children to punish her philandering husband, Jason. Of course, at the end of Euripides’ play, the Gods favor the violent murderer, and in the deus ex machina ending most critiqued by Aristotle in The Poetics, sweep her off the stage to safety.
The scorned woman’s hyper-violence does not result in retribution by the gods, but instead support. Academic feminists have similarly rescued Medea as a resistance fighter against patriarchal control and violence (Kerrigan, “Medea Variations”). Verhoeven thus places the criticism of his films within a literary context, demonstrating that the critique of violence and sexism in ancient Greece was no less fraught than in our present, and that representing horrific violence is not the same as endorsing it.
Indeed, in Elle, Verhoeven has produced the strangest rape-revenge film in history. This sub-genre of horror film was most prominent in film history in the wake of the women’s liberation movement. Films such as Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981) and I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) featured first acts of vicious sexual violence against women, saving their second two acts for the woman’s triumphant, brutal revenge killings against her attackers.
There is no such easy resolution in Elle. As in a rape-revenge film, Michele refuses to call the police, knowing that they can do nothing to help her. She begins following the clues, searching for her assailant. She dreams of him attacking her again so that she might smash his brains out. Instead, Michele discovers the identity of her attacker, and begins a sado-masochistic relationship with him.
Elle resonates not with Verhoeven’s forays into big budget Hollywood, nor American exploitation films, but with the international art cinema. In Liliana Cavani’s infamous The Night Porter (1974), a former female inmate of a Nazi concentration camp meets her former captor after the war, now working at a hotel. She resumes their sexual relationship, in which he transforms from abuser to victim. In the film’s most visceral moment, after they’ve had sex, she breaks a glass in the bathroom and lies in wait for him to cut his bare foot. As he enters the bathroom, and she grabs his foot, but he deliberately steps down onto the glass.
The second half of Elle interrogates Michele’s psychological complexities in the aftermath of her traumatic life, both her father’s murder spree and the rape. After her son murders the rapist, Michele goes to talk with the man’s wife as she moves out of her home. The wife, a devout Catholic, states blankly that her husband was a good man, but troubled. Huppert as Michele stares at her, indicating not just contempt, but her character’s own equivocations, as this is exactly what her mother argued about her father.
Verhoeven ends the film with no certainties about what we have just witnessed. Like his American science-fiction films, which hover between fascist aesthetics and the critique of totalitarian violence, Elle swirls around a woman emotionally crippled by patriarchal violence, yet continuing to exist amid a world of violently sexist video games, from which she seemingly gladly profits. When Michele produces the video games, she replicates Verhoeven’s American films, the legacy of which brutally ensnares her, not even seeming to acknowledge the connection to her lived experience. In its slippage across the genders of character and director, Elle represents the autobiographical impulse in cinema in a surprising, yet powerful way.
Kerrigan, John. “Medea Variations: Feminism and Revenge.” Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon. Oxford Scholarship Online, 1997. http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198184515.001.0001/acprof-9780198184515-chapter-13. Accessed: April 26, 2017.