Daily BulletinHoliday Centre

The Conversation

  • Written by Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

How are we to understand the rapturous reception leading film critics have given to Paul Verhoeven’s “rape comedy” Elle? The bad boy director, they tell us, “dares us to judge”, “explodes conventions”, “pushes buttons” and “subverts myths”. The judgement, the convention, the button, and the myth in question is that women do not like to be raped.

The critics write as if, by giving voice to a repressed desire, the film takes a hacksaw to the final shackle on female sexual expression. In a gushing 5-star review in the Guardian, Xan Brooks lauds the “Dutch provocateur” for slapping his audience in the face, hooking a set of jumper leads to our chests and giving us an “outrageous black comedy”, about rape.

Writing in Variety, Guy Lodge praises the film’s refusal to succumb to “essentialist conclusions”. If attitudes towards gender and sexuality (and everything else) are not fixities but social constructions, there can be nothing “essential” in women’s abhorrence at a vicious rape by a masked stranger.

For that is the inciting incident that kicks off the film. It opens with only a black screen but we hear the grunts and cries of rutting before cutting to the victim’s cat, who watches the attack with feline detachment. Verhoeven seems to dare us to adopt the same attitude.

The “victim” Michèle, played with unnerving authenticity by Isabelle Huppert, cleans herself up, washes her bleeding vagina and gets on with her life, which is to manage a videogames company that specialises in ultraviolent fantasies, such as one in which a roaring beast holds down a young woman and penetrates her convulsively with a phallic tentacle.

But hey, who are we to judge? Elle’s lesson is that women’s sexuality is more complicated than we might imagine. Verhoeven, writes Lodge, is “mapping one woman’s eccentric, sometimes inscrutable response to sexual assault.”

The dangers of this standpoint are too well known to bear repeating, yet this kind of post-modern anti-essentialism – according to which all moral judgements are merely expressions of opinion and so carry no social weight – is a prerequisite for today’s sophisticated film critic.

If auteur groupies can understand that one woman’s eccentric response does not transfer to all women, for the entitled college boys who chant “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal”, Elle may provide an excuse to append “and Rape Means More Please”.

Rape can set you free

Since the 1960s almost all taboos have been transgressed, disputed and discarded, but one pillar of sexual ethics has remained rock solid – consent. In Elle Verhoeven takes a sledgehammer to it. If it falls the rubble becomes a hunting ground for male carnality.

Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin brags she can “smell the fear” of reviewers less brave than herself, before expounding on how our feelings about sexual violence are just social conditioning (you know, like genital mutilation).

She predicts that those dull old feminists will take umbrage at the film. So far as I can tell, she’s the only critic artless enough to speak of how “empowering” it can be to be raped and then to lust after your rapist, although Jordan Mintzer, also writing in the Hollywood Reporter, interprets Elle as a story of how Michèle uses sex, violence and sadism to set herself free. Has feminism in America come to this?

Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that Michèle is really fucked up and needs help (her father is a serial killer and her mother is bonkers), Guy Lodge goes along with Verhoeven’s idea that the film is an exploration of Michèle’s “mass of conflicting intellectual, emotional and sexual impulses”, even when late in the film she leads her rapist knowingly into the dungeon he keeps beneath his house so that he can crack her head against the wall and rape her again.

This scene is no BDSM fantasy with a code word when it starts to hurt a bit, and one really has to ask how low Verhoeven’s transgressitis will take him when he hints that there might be another side to tell about the depravities of a Marc Detroux or Josef Fritzl.

Transgression is reactionary

Of course not all critics are determined to out-sophisticate the rest by refusing to judge. John Bleasdale wraps up his review in Cine Vue with a sharp observation on how the story of Elle concludes.

“There are very few emotional consequences, no one really cares about what has happened and the audience are encouraged to react with the same indifference perhaps as the cat that opened the movie. It might be far less easy for rape survivors in the audience to take the whole affair with such Gallic cool.”

What are we to make of those critics who can’t kick the habits of the 60s, whose minds are still stalked by the great ogre of sexual repression that keeps our impulses in check and must be defeated by transgression, provocation and ridicule?

Does anyone actually think western societies do not have enough opportunities for an almost limitless variety of sexual expression?

The truth is that Elle-style transgression is a post-modern cliché perfectly suited to Cannes and the critics who worship there. More than that, it’s reactionary. In a world of hyper-consumerism, pervasive surveillance, climate apocalypse and corporate control of politics, who now really believes that “freeing” individuals by challenging remnant sexual taboos is the path to liberation?

It’s not us, the cinema-goers, whose rules need to be transgressed but those of the system of global power. For my money, the transgressions of Edward Snowden make Paul Verhoeven’s look like child’s play.

Authors: Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

Read more http://theconversation.com/to-elle-and-back-reviewing-the-reviewers-61261


The Conversation


Closing the Gap Statement to Parliament

Mr Speaker, when we meet in this place, we are on Ngunnawal country. I give my thanks and pay my respects to our Ngunnawal elders, past, present and importantly emerging for our future. I honour...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Alan Jones

ALAN JONES: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Alan.    JONES: I was just thinking last night when we're going to talk to you today, you must feel as though you've ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Prime Minister Bridget McKenzie press conference

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everybody. The good news is that the Qantas flight is on its way to Wuhan and I want to thank everybody for their cooperation, particularly the Chinese Government as...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Is Hiring a Corporate Lawyer for Your Company Necessary?

Alternative online legal services like LegalZoom, Incfile, and Rocket Lawyer provides young and budding entrepreneurs access to legal help at a much affordable price without having to hire or meet a l...

Joe Curmi - avatar Joe Curmi

Top 5 Green Marketing Ideas for Your Eco-Friendly Small Business

According to studies, about 33 percent of consumers prefer buying from brands that care about their impact on the environment. This is good news for anyone running an eco-friendly business. It’s a...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Choosing the Right Coworking Space For Your Business

As the capital of Victoria in Australia, Melbourne is inhabited by millions of people and is known as one of the most liveable cities in the world. The latter is due to the city’s diverse community...

Sarah Williams - avatar Sarah Williams


Travelling With Pets? Here Is What You Should Know

Only a pet parent can understand the dilemma one experiences while planning a vacation. Do you leave your pets at home?  Will you get a pet sitter or someone to take care of them while you are away?...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Be a Smart Frugal Traveller

You are looking through Instagram, watching story after story of your followers overseas at a beach in Santorini, walking through the piazza in Italy, and eating a baguette in front of the Eiffel ...

News Company - avatar News Company


Graduation is the stage of life when a student receives the rewards of hard work of years. It must have taken sleepless nights and tiring days to achieve the task. Now, as you have received your cov...

News Company - avatar News Company