R. Hard R. While dealing with a story spiraling out of rape, the story becomes overtly sexual and gory. The concept of rape should and needs to be discussed, but the movie really toes its ethics into eroticism at times. There's all kinds of awful things going on throughout the film with a pride of its brutality. Obviously language would be involved, but there's so much just gross stuff going on throughout the film. Hard R.
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
I don't know how this movie found its way into my DVD Netflix queue. I don't remember putting it in there. Mind you, the movie was from 2016. Maybe it was up for an Academy Award and I kept burying it under other movies I wanted to see. Maybe it was just because Paul Verhoeven was making waves and I wanted to see what was up. I had no idea what I was getting into. When I read the description on the outside of the sleeve, I thought this would be a respectful look about the effects of sexual assault. I know the movie will probably tout itself as something like that, but Paul Verhoeven kind of creates something that comes across more like an erotic thriller than a nuanced understanding of sexual assault.
The first minute of the movie starts with the assault. Shown from the point of view of the cat, there's nothing sexy about it. Verhoeven throws us into the inciting incident and gives a respectful tone that seems to assume that "we don't need to see this." After all, the audience knows what is going on. What would be the point of showing this. I'll even give Verhoeven points for the next fifteen to twenty minutes of film. The protagonist, Michele, deals with the assault in her own way. Showing why people may have a distrust of the police, coupled with the fact that there's no standard way to process such a violation, Michele leads her life with the hard edge that she has been associated with. Within hours of the incident, Michele has a meal with her son. They discuss the things they normally would. There's never this moment of Michele breaking down or a temptation to reveal what happened. This is the movie I wanted to watch.
But then the movie really starts to exploit the whole thing. I know that I'm watching a film by Paul Verhoeven. Maybe I rented this movie because I heard that he made something vulnerable and respectful. I read on Wikipedia that this got a seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes. But I have the same feeling for this movie that I do with Call Me By Your Name. It feels like it is progressive when it is actually deeply troubling. This movie is not subtle. Once Michele reveals her rape, casually and even-breathed, to her closest friends, the movie takes a tonal shift. It doesn't feel like it's there, but it is. What happens is that the movie becomes this erotic thriller melodrama where Michele both goes full Death Wish / The Punisher and starts sexually fantasizing about her rapist. That subtle opening, with the assault from the point of view of the cat? After the revelation, we see multiple fully explicit rape sequences. I can't agree that anything respectful is happening in these moments. These moments are as titilizing as can be and it feels really gross. We start seeing porn being created out of these moments, via the video game she's working for. It's really upsetting and doesn't feel like anything real.
Elle kind of becomes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo completely missed the point of the story. While Dragon Tattoo deals with the violation of women while telling an action story, Lisabeth Salander always finds the assault for what it is: a criminal act about power. Salander becomes this feminist, empowered hero who takes back the power. Yeah, the Millennnium stories are thrillers, but the message is woven all the way through the narrative. Elle, with all of its muddy narrative, doesn't make Michele heroic at all. There's this really interesting moment about halfway through the film. The first half of the film is about living in fear of this rapist who is torturing her. (Again, gross, but it's the story.) Michele sometimes fantasizes about the rapist dominating her. Sometimes she dreams about fighting him off. Again, I will give some leeway to say that there's no right way to process. (I'm more focused on Verhoeven's intention for audience.) The primary conflict is about discovering who this masked man is. If she can discover who that is, she can put a stop to this nightmare.
But she does find out who it is. Actually, fairly reasonably into the movie, she finds out who he is after he attempts a second assault. And this is where it gets really gross: she is super turned on by this guy. She's been trying to seduce this guy since she met him unmasked. This is where the movie becomes overtly gross. He can only enjoy the relationship when it is a violation. She wants to be with him while being abhorred by him. Come on. Don't tell me that this is progressive. The knowledge that this guy is a monster and could do this to other people doesn't mean that she should just let this guy go. At one point, she play-acts to help him get aroused. This isn't a story that should be applauded, at all. What kind of gross message is the movie promoting? It's that ever-shifting morality. It's really disturbing and I don't know why this movie is lauded as it is.
Also, the movie itself is really muddy. Like, there's so many side stories that only act as distractions from what the main plot is supposed to be. Michele, it turns out, is a horrible person. That's fine. Horrible people don't deserve sexual assault, so that is fine. But she is sleeping around with her best friend's husband, whom she doesn't even like. She's about to be a grandmother and she hates her daughter-in-law. Don't worry, to complicate things more there, the son can't hold down a job and the grandchild clearly isn't hers. Her mother sleeps around with younger guys. They're making a video game and someone at the company hates her and someone at the company is aroused by her. She's stalking her ex's new girlfriend. She wants to buy a gun. And if that wasn't complicated enough...
Her aging father is a famous, incarcerated serial killer. Oh, and she, as a child, helped cover up their murders. Listen, there's understandable reasons why someone who is the victim of a sexual assault would be hesitant to notify the authorities. It's apparently remarkably common. There's no reason to make the most soap opera-y reason in the world to make this happen. Despite the fact that a victim of assault instantly garners empathy from an audience and makes a perfect avatar for the viewer, Michele becomes so unrelatable over the course of the movie. I get that there's a nugget of genius in there. The idea that an act of violence such as rape doesn't stop life in its tracks is a great idea. Seeing someone deal with things that should take a backseat can say a lot. But it gets so goofy at some point. Who relates to all these things? Does Michele have the most insane life of all time? Watching her flat affect all these events makes her come across like a sociopath.
It feels really gross to watch a movie that could have this amazing message, but just resort to absolute offensive emotional manipulation. Paul Verhoeven is known for being kind of base. But his genius lied in the fact that he was using over-the-top storytelling techniques to comment on humanity's sense of excess. Applying the same to sexual assault seems really cheap and discusting to me. This is a miss in every sense.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.