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Dreaming of France? Elle starring Isabelle Huppert may strike you as a nightmare.

I shared the first trailer for Elle back in May when the French language movie based on Philippe Djian’s Oh made its’ debut at the Cannes Film Fest. Your responses then weren’t unlike my gut feelings: scary but intriguing.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Show Girls) Elle stars Isabelle Huppert as a fifty-something business woman, attacked and raped in her own home.
‘‘Michèle (who) seems indestructible. Head of a leading video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being attacked in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle’s life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game—a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.’’
The film which was received with wild applause at Cannes may play to less enthusiasm when it screens at TIFF later this week on  September 8th and the NYFF on at the end of the month. We are having a difficult time talking about rape culture here in this country and a film initially dubbed a ‘rape comedy’ may turn Americans off. 

Verhoeven denies the charge. “It’s not a rape comedy at all,” says the director. “It’s rape and there is comedy. You’re not laughing at all when she gets raped.” So that’s something. Verhoeven went on to tell the Guardian that while they initially planned to make the movie in English with American stars they were unable to find any actresses who would tackle the material. 

“We basically translated the novel into English and I knew a very good American scriptwriter. We were basically replacing Paris with Chicago or Seattle. It was only when we got the reaction of female American stars that we started to realise this kind of story without a revenge was not for the American market.”
THR reviewer Jordan Mintzer praised the film, glibly calling it
"a tastefully twisted mid-to-late-life crisis thriller that’s both lasciviously dark and rebelliously light on its feet — a story about a 50-something woman who is dealt several blows over the course of a few months and fights back with authority, mockery and a fat can of pepper spray."

THR’s female critic Leslie Felperin had a more nuanced response
"Elle complicates its rape narrative with an exploration of female masochism — a theme rarely addressed in current cinema, where masochism tends to only be allowed if it’s consensual and part of a controlled BDSM diet a la Fifty Shades. [Michele] certainly doesn’t want to be raped, but once the incident happens (it’s shown several times in flashback, and each time it’s categorically clear that this indeed is a rape), the trauma stirs up uncomfortable feelings in her," Felperin writes. "And those feelings don’t match what we've been conditioned to expect from standard depictions of sexual violence in various art forms. Michele does not fall apart, or go into obvious shock, or go to the police or even shut down sexually after her attack. … Michele, in short, refuses to see herself as a victim at all. There will undoubtedly be feminists who take umbrage with the film, and not just because of its complex, intertwined examinations of desire, masochism and power. Some, I suspect, will denounce it for showing a rape victim refusing to report her rapist, and therefore not setting a good example. … Others will be shocked that Michele doesn’t show sufficient rage. … For me, Elle is perhaps the smartest, most honest and empowering film about rape I’ve ever seen — because while it's about damage, it's also about resilience and how whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger."
It might be scary. It might be uncomfortable. But Elle, and what it says and doesn’t say about rape is going to be part of this year’s cinematic conversation, and the wider discussion about rape culture in this country as well. At a time when Brock Turner, a student athlete in California serves just three months of a paltry six month sentence for sexual assault and Nate Turner, director of Birth of a Nation is accused of rape but judged not guilty, yet the victim ends up taking her own life, it’s a conversation we need to insist on.
Every week I try to post something of interest to my fellow françophiles at Dreaming of France. I hope this satisfies the French cinephiles among you.