In the wake of the universal “shock” at Donald Trump’s private comments to Billy Bush, remarks that automatically branded him as terminally misogynistic, it’s fascinating to see the reaction of critics to the film “Elle,” the latest offering from Paul Verhoeven. Since this article is not meant as a review, stop reading now if you want to see the movie for yourself. The chattering classes were overwhelmingly impressed and delighted by this film about recurring rapes in which the level of violence escalates as the heroine refuses to notify the police. Isabelle Hupert plays the icy head of a video-game company who keeps urging her young male employees to ratchet up the sex and violence in the program they are currently creating. She is a divorced single mother whose ex-husband and son are both weak, unsuccessful men whom she berates routinely. But she’s an equal opportunity exploiter of women as she cheats on her trusted friend/partner with that woman’s husband; maligns and humiliates her elderly mother, perversely recounts her recent rape at a dinner table as casually if she were discussing what to choose from the menu.
If you’re a thoughtful viewer, you will question the sangfroid she displays after the initial horrifying attack as she picks herself up and immediately sets to cleaning up the broken dishes on the floor and then being more bemused than disturbed by the bloody foam visible in her bath. She has a backstory of being the daughter of an imprisoned mass killer and she may or may not have been implicated in his crime or in some previous sadistic abuse by her father. We soon see that the masked rapist, a tall man in a form-fitting S & M bodysuit, has access to her computer and her house - he leaves sexual messages that don’t seem to affect her decision not to call for protection. She has a tall handsome neighbor who is clearly a candidate for both predator and prey as she scrutinizes him through binoculars while simultaneously masturbating. At a dinner party to which she invites him and his wife, she plays footsie with his leg and proceeds higher to his crotch without betraying any change in her expression.
Though the rapes are brutal enough to leave you wondering whether both parties might end up dead, they are treated with a comic book approach to no lasting damage. At one point, our heroine’s head is bashed against a basement boiler but no medical care is necessary. Similarly, after her car overturns as she swerves to avoid hitting a deer, she is trapped inside and calls the neighbor/possible rapist to rescue her. He too is comfortable with the sight of blood and mashed tissue and patches up her leg expertly with no sign of squeamishness.
One of the oldest canards about rape is that women secretly fantasize about it. Elle , (a title that refers to all females of all ages) celebrates a successful woman who is sexually aroused by rape and violence, who creates semi-pornographic video games to encourage more of it, who is amoral and manipulative in her dealings with everyone in her world and who, we find out at the end, has been cooperating with her rapist all along. One would imagine that critics living in the age of Fox News and Trump would be disturbed by this politically incorrect spin turning aggressive male behavior into something that women want and enjoy. One would also question whether movies like this, like the video-games Hupert creates, don’t feed the culture of misogyny that made Donald Trump such a presumed unacceptable candidate to women and democrats. Though director Paul Verhoeven isn’t running for office, he is certainly influencing viewers both by filling the screen with extreme brutality and then turning it around, making such abuse sexually pleasurable for the victim. And though film critics aren’t electors, they certainly show their flexible “morality” by finding this film kinkily amusing.
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