A new kind of feminism in French cinema

By Helena Chung

Anyone who is interested in European films will definitely have heard of French cinema’s two Isabelles: Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert. Both are winners of the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscars). However, compared to Adjani, who is a two-time Oscar nominee (for The Story of Adele H in 1975 and Camille Claude in 1988) as well holder of a whopping five Cesar Award wins, Huppert has only won the Cesar once from 16 nominations – and has never been nominated for an Oscar. Unbelievable, right? Well, this might change this year, as the 63-year-old actress delivers one of her best performances in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, selected as the French submission of Best Foreign Film for this year’s Academy Awards.

Elle is a very extreme film: audiences either love it or hate it. Dealing with the issue of rape, audiences expecting a revenge thriller buzzing with positive “woman power” will soon find themselves lost in the psychological maze constructed by Verhoeven’s disturbing directing and Huppert’s multi-layered performance as the strong, mysterious, and twisted heroine Michele. We expect emotional anguish and trauma from a rape victim; instead, we have Michele reacting calmly – as if her cat has just scratched her. We expect anger and hatred from Michele as she discovers the identity of the rapist, yet what we witness is a dangerous game of desire, treading on the line of destruction where morality simply doesn’t exist and power dynamics shift ambiguously.

These are the two keywords that one has to understand before watching Elle: desire and freedom. Desire is part of human nature, even though most of us shy away from this subject due to shame defined by society and culture. Desire is complex, unstable, and constantly repressed, especially for women trapped under gender stereotypes. What’s so striking about Michele is that she never tries to repress it or find excuses for herself. She deals with her desire with a certain kind of honesty that is so truthful it can almost be described as brutal. By following her desire, she achieves complete freedom and liberation by taking control of her life as well as those around her.

Speaking of control, the relationship between control and violence (in the form of rape) is another essential element in Elle. Not that we expect less from the director who shocked the world with Basic Instinct 24 years ago. Michele’s attitude towards her rapist, and her whole life, not only unnerves the audience, but also foreshadows the unexpected plot twist of the rapist’s identity. What defies audience’s expectations isn’t the answer to the question of the “Who”, but rather to the “How” of Michele dealing with this piece of information. Her reaction is simply beyond the comprehension of normal people, yet at the same time astonishingly convincing and thrilling, thanks to the Huppert’s acute understanding of this incredibly challenging character.

It’s perfectly predictable that Elle is going to have polarising reviews. There are bound to be many so-called “moralists” condemning it under the pretext of an “incorrect” portrayal of feminism. However, as a feminist myself, I believe that rather than creating stereotypes of female characters who behave in a “politically correct” manner, the true essence of a dimensional female character should be one like Michele, who has her faults and dark sides, just like men. This is exactly what Hollywood lacks, and yet it is also what female audiences are shouting for.

Elle is probably one of the best feminist movies that doesn’t look like one I have ever seen. Even though the chance is slim, I hope the male-dominated Academy can appreciate Huppert’s talent.

Photograph: Christopher Dombres

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