How does one really get revenge for a rape? Many might settle for killing their assailant, perhaps humiliating him, mutilating, or perpetrating some manner of sexual assault in response. For the protagonist of 2016's Elle (Her), an intellectual businesswoman who was raised in upper class society, true revenge requires something much more complex because she's cognisant of the complex facets of implications and associations at play. The fascinating character created by the filmmakers, in particular by actress Isabelle Huppert, makes this film an amazing portrayal of human intellect. Funny, disturbing, clever, and startlingly insightful, this is a captivating film.
And this cat is an asshole, by the way. It's funny that the cat is an asshole and it's slightly disturbing, too. This is the opening shot of the film and the reverse shot reveals the cat is witnessing its owner, Michele (Isabelle Huppert), being raped in her home by a man in a black ski mask. If the cat's nonchalance seems odd, downright bizarre is Michele's. After the assailant leaves, she calmly gets up, cleans up the mess, and goes on with what she has planned for the day. She's so casual about it that when she tells a group of friends about the rape at dinner later, despite their initial shock, one of them still picks something off the wine menu when the waiter approaches.
Probably this is exactly what Michele intends. Since childhood, we learn, she's been manipulated by those closest to her. Her father is an infamous mass-murderer, now imprisoned, who enlisted the aid of his trusting young daughter. Her mother (Judith Magre) is so manipulative that when the older woman has a stroke and Michele goes to the hospital with her, she's genuinely surprised when the doctor tells her her mother wasn't faking it. So for Michele, the most natural thing in the world when someone, even a rapist, does something to elicit an emotional response from her is to give as little reaction as possible. But that just scratches the surface of how Michele deals with this problem.
We don't see the rape scene in full until Michele sees her cat again and its mewing causes a vivid flashback. For a moment, I thought she was going to take out her repressed feelings on the cat but she simply picks him and says while she didn't expect him to claw the guy's eyes out he ought to have at least scratched him. She's not repressing her feelings or her memory, she's just choosing to digest them in a different way.
She begins receiving text messages from the rapist and it becomes clear that he's someone she knows. For the portion of the film where she hasn't found out his identity yet, we're invited to study various men in her life and ponder along with her how their personalities might be capable of rape. This in itself would be horrifically traumatic for most people but Michele has lived in a state of emotional wariness all her life because of her infamous father and also because of her career. In charge of a video game company, she has frequent arguments with the lead designer of their latest game, Kurt (Lucas Prisor). He accuses her of not understanding video games because her background is in literary publishing. But even in the aftermath of her rape, she sits at an employee screening of one of the game's cutscenes and reminds the employees she wants the reactions of a female character who's assaulted in a sexually suggestive manner by a goblin to come off as more orgasmic.
Having already published at least one successful video game, though, criticisms of her on this count don't hold a lot of water. Michele is an older woman--Isabelle Huppert is 63--and years of experience in the publishing industry are evident in her responses to challenges from employees.
Michele also has an ex-husband, a frustrated writer who hopes she'll make connexions for him, and they have a weak-willed son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), dominated by his girlfriend who gives birth to a baby who clearly had a different father but who Vincent is eager to raise anyway, despite his girlfriend's verbal abuse of him and his mother. Michele is surrounded by men who lead unsatisfactory lives and she has had to assert herself as the monarch of her social group both because of their needs and her own need for a fulfilling career. The film is in part about how a woman even now needs to navigate and at times manipulate male egos just to have the normal opportunities given to men. The film also shows how being the deity of her social universe has given her a perspective to divest her of the illusions many cling to. It's the tools she's mastered in this career that she also brings to bear against her rapist.
The screenplay is good and director Paul Verhoeven--yes, he of RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall--is remarkably subtle and cohesive with this story that bravely blends pulp and psychological society drama. But most of all this film succeeds for Isabelle Hupport who embodies Michele so perfectly, 60% of the story is written in her facial expressions.