At first glance, Paul Verhoeven’s film, Elle, might seem a far cry from a feminist treatise, but then no one has ever been accused of getting Verhoeven right. His film, Basic Instinct, was probably the most empowering film for women of its generation, but that didn’t prevent critics from both the religious right and the radical feminist left from railing against it, insisting that it was “lesbo-phobic,” despite depicting female (and especially lesbian) sexuality in a positive light, while also providing sharp satirical jabs at American male chauvinism and machismo.
Throughout his filmmaking career, Verhoeven has consistently represented empowered female characters in films such as such as Showgirls, The 4th Man, and Black Book, to name just a few. Elle is no exception. Verhoeven’s most recent release is about how resilient, smart, capable and sexually powerful women are nevertheless disempowered and participate (unwittingly) in their own subjugation. Verhoeven is not out to diminish women with his film, but rather to dissect and analyse female disempowerment and why feminism fails. This is not a patriarchal film but a film about patriarchy, its detrimental consequences and why it persists. Feminists can learn a lot from Verhoeven’s film if they will look past first impressions and read the subtext.
Elle is ostensibly about a psychologically damaged woman, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) who, together with her business partner Anna, run a successful video game company. Through childhood trauma inflicted by her murderous father, Michèle has internalised a monstrous image of herself constructed by the news media. So implicated has she become in her patriarch’s guilt, and so thoroughly complicit in her culture’s transference of his crimes to herself, that she can no longer escape the vicious cycle of sadomasochism. She is sadistic towards the other women who share in her degradation, yet also, thoroughly masochistic in her self-loathing.
Since childhood, Michèle has been a passive receptacle of, first, her father’s commands, and later, public shame (for obeying them). Despite having done nothing blameworthy (she was a child at the time, and unaware of what her actions meant), Michèle’s despicable self-image, once appropriated, thoroughly colours her self-conception that alternatives to it become literally inconceivable. As her surname (Leblanc) suggests, Michèle is a blank slate written upon by others, with no innate core of her own.
All of Michèle’s male and female relationships are thoroughly tainted by her dual addiction to misogyny and self-destruction. She is having an affair with her best friend and colleague Anna’s utterly narcissistic husband, Robert. She lusts after her own rapist and lets him dominate and abuse her body while being unfaithful to his own wife. She indulges her feckless, financially dependent son, and treats his girlfriend derisively. She employs a virtually all-male team of jealous and resentful (even perversely misogynistic) employees who design sexist scenarios in the games they produce for her company while also harbouring perverse sexually violent fantasies about her. She has a seemingly close friendship with her ex-husband, Richard, but he has apparently ditched her for the excitement of a younger female lover. Meanwhile, she herself is also responsible for the creation of ever more sexually violent, misogynistic content in the gaming industry. Because she despises herself, Michèle cannot escape the cycle of being both an object and a producer of misogynistic media. We see female models at the games company being manipulated and photographed like dolls by male game designers, but we also see Michèle pushing her team to brainstorm ever more perversely violent misogynistic scenarios.
The intra-female disrespect (a seemingly inevitable divide-and-conquer leitmotif in patriarchy’s maintenance of cultural dominance) that leads Michèle to sleep with Anna’s husband, drives these two businesswomen apart, making potentially powerful allies compete against one another for the apparent ‘privilege’ of being used and exploited by the same man (Robert). Michèle also has contempt for her elderly mother, whose self-esteem is so completely defined by her stereotypically “feminine” attractiveness to men that she undergoes all manner of facial surgery and bust-enlargement to appear middle aged. She succeeds in attracting a younger lover to whom she bequeaths her apartment (thus disinheriting her own daughter) after he exploits her desperation by marrying her in the twilight of her life with an eye to becoming her heir.
Elle shows how women, due to their internalised normalisation of female degradation and self-loathing, have accepted their own abuse at such a deep level that resistance is literally futile. After a stranger breaks into her home and sexually violates her, Michèle appears neither surprised by this event, nor hysterical. Verhoeven does not present a stereotypical damsel in distress nor a feminine weakling who calls on a man for help. Quite the opposite; Michèle is not sufficiently emotionally detached from female sexual abuse to react in horror. This is, after all, the stuff that she has made a living from producing, in concert with an almost all-male team of ‘creatives’ who get paid for feeding the consumer demand for misogynistic content. In the porn-saturated media regime, rape culture is the norm, not the exception. This is her normal. Verhoeven’s film subtly suggests that it is also ours. Michèle is “Elle” (Her): a metaphor for women in general and the impossibility of feminism in a world that from birth indoctrinates us all – men and women alike – with misogyny. Like her, women are estranged from themselves because they grow up in a world saturated with images of themselves (women) constructed by men. As such, they learn to see themselves the way men do – as marginal “others.” This situation infects women with self-objectification so that they become psychologically detached from themselves; they are “her” (elle), not “I” or “me.” They cannot and do not identify with one another because they do not identify with themselves; their very ‘selfhood’ is mediated by the patriarchy.
The way Verhoeven represents the key women in the film does not suggest that they are fragile pushovers, but jaded agents who know the advantages in going along with the patriarchy as clearly as the disadvantages in resisting it. They are desensitised to themselves, because they have learned to see themselves from a male perspective, and yet, Verhoeven is careful not to present them from a stereotypically voyeuristic ‘male’ perspective of his own. As in his other films, and unlike standard Hollywood fodder, Verhoeven presents strong female protagonists (subjects, not mere objects) who have goals and interests other than marriage and/or motherhood. His female characters are sexual agents and seek satisfaction of their own sexual desires. Verhoeven’s women are not mere eye candy for the male gaze, present only to feed male characters’ sexual appetites. In a particularly unconventional reversal of male voyeurism, Verhoeven shows Michele spying on Patrick with a pair of binoculars while masturbating. She wants him and she pursues him, aggressively. Through the use of an eyeline match, the audience is positioned with Michèle’s point of view and, because she is sexualising Patrick, the audience sees him as the sex object.
At the same time, because Verhoeven wants to examine how patriarchy infects the female psyche, Elle represents women as both objects and producers of male misogynistic fantasies. Male misogyny is first internalised and then reproduced by females, and this is the film’s whole point – women are deeply complicit in their own (and other women’s) oppression because they cannot even imagine things (or themselves) any other way. Michèle is just a very specific and extreme example of a situation that impacts all women (and men). In the patriarchal culture of which the gaming industry serves as a key example, men learn to hate women and women unconsciously learn to hate themselves and other women. Verhoeven is also an expert in Christian theology, so perhaps it is not surprising that Elle also subtly implicates Catholicism’s historical role in nurturing patriarchy. Patrick’s wife, a devout Catholic, is permissive towards his “problem.” Her awareness of Patrick’s dirty little vice (infidelity and/or rape), and her nonchalance about it, expose her own self-loathing and hypocrisy, and perhaps serve as an oblique reference to the Catholic Church’s notorious permissiveness vis-à-vis child sexual abuse.
Verhoeven’s film suggests that female self-loathing is not the fault of women, but a legacy of social patriarchy. All of the men who have some kind of sexual desire for Michèle are depicted as deeply infected by patriarchal misogyny, whether it is Robert using Michèle as a mirror for his own narcissistic self-adoration, employee Kevin harbouring secret violent sexual fantasies about humiliating her, or rapist Patrick, who is literally incapable of sexual arousal except when inflicting sadistic violence or humiliation.
Michèle hopes to finally confront the man (her father) who bequeathed to her this miserable state of affairs, but it is too late. He is already dead, the damage already done. Just when Michèle has finally found the strength to confront him, her father commits suicide, robbing her of the one thing that might have healed her psychological sickness. Verhoeven’s film suggests that the ultimate sting of patriarchy is that the men who set up this situation in the past are no longer present or accountable. Yet, their enduring legacy cannot be undone.
In patriarchal culture, female self-love comes at a cost because women and men are both born into a sexist culture that encourages male dominance and female submission, so it would seem that fulfilling her own sexual desires inevitably entails masochism because females’ relationships with men are relationships for and about men and their desires.
When Michèle at last learns the identity of her rapist and confronts him with the simple question, “why?” he responds with, “It is necessary.” This might seem cryptically simplistic, but this concise answer brings a key issue into sharp focus. The natural necessity of sexism has indeed been the recurring trope through which propagandists of patriarchy have historically rationalised male superiority. A theory of biological determinism always explains why patriarchy is not a political issue but biological necessity.
Sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson insist that patriarchy persists because genes anchor culture. Freud rooted patriarchal culture in the penis and vagina (mostly the penis). Christian traditionalists attached patriarchal social arrangements to reproductive functions as given in “Creation,” defining women’s social roles as mother and wife accordingly. The story of Eve’s transgression and punishment by God further reinforces females’ subservient relationships to their husbands.
It was only when existentialists gave the lie to this myth after WWII that significant progress was made towards gender equality. Feminists like Simone de Beauvoir distinguished what’s between your legs (sex) from what’s between your ears (gender). You were born with the former. The latter you were taught. What was put between your ears got there by means of patriarchal cultural indoctrination. When women have tried to work their way into roles or positions that were the preserve of men, propagandists of patriarchy have always resorted to ‘nature’ to reinforce the patriarchal system. This tactic works because the cultural landscape is so saturated with sexist stereotypes that they do seem almost ‘natural.’
The only optimism Verhoeven’s film offers is that women will eventually be so battered down by their wretched circumstances that they will find solace in one another, as friends, equals, and possibly lovers. The film’s ending suggests that the two female business partners, Michele and Anna, may end up together in a romantic partnership. They’ve previously had one pass at becoming lesbian lovers and briefly discuss resuming it. Like his other feminist movies, Verhoeven’s latest film deserves more appreciation from male and female feminists for its deep and complex treatment of how both media and religious culture impact all of us.