Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Sony Pictures Classics

How a New Movie About the Fear of Female Power Explains the Election

Nov 09, 2016

Americans still reeling that the U.S. rejected an experienced female candidate for President over an inexperienced male candidate might find a few answers in the eerily prescient new French movie Elle, which opens in some cities on Nov. 11. It's being touted as a sexy-heroic women's self defense movie, but in reality, it delves into all the ways that female power is, to some people, a terrifying specter.

In the opening scene of the movie, Michéle, a woman of a certain age played by the iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert, is raped. She matter-of-factly cleans up her gorgeous Parisian apartment just in time for her adult son to arrive. It's clear that if he had been on time, she would not have been violated; it's also apparent that this is not the first time he has let her down.

But Michéle is no victim. She's a beautiful woman at the top of her form. With her best friend, she runs a very successful computer game business, one that specializes in creating entertainment as violent towards women as possible. She's the queen of a guy's domain; nearly all her employees are young men and when she's feeling benevolent she throws some work to her ex-husband, a writer, and her son, who wants to be a party planner. Oh—and she's also sleeping with her best friend's husband. But all of that isn't enough to keep her occupied, so she starts to have sexual designs on the husband of the couple who live across the road, who seems to be dedicated to each other.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Michéle uses her so-called "feminine wiles" to devour every guy in her orbit. She manipulates one of her young employees with a crush on her into unethical activity. She makes sure her ex-husband can't move on to a new relationship or a financially independent life. She destroys her lover's life by telling his wife of their affair and—because, apparently, all women are in cahoots—the wife sides with Michéle.

On top of all this, she uses her purse and apron strings as strangling devices. Her son and his pregnant girlfriend need somewhere to live, but she makes him choose between her and his girlfriend. She inflicts damage on her broke ex-husband's car and toys with his career aspirations. Everybody is kept in her thrall. But Michéle, who exacts a horrible and even morally questionable revenge on her rapist, glides away, maddeningly untouchable.

The movie's director Paul Verhoven, whose most famous film, Basic Instinct, has another dangerous woman at its center, depicts female power as something to be afraid of: it's invisible, it's overwhelming, and, as the more vulnerable sex, women are never held to account for their abuses of power. In interviews, Huppert has described Elle as post-feminist, insofar as it discusses issues that become important after women have equal rights.

But with many people surmising that the results of the election suggest that we do not yet live in a post-feminist world, the movie is actually more of a study on what people see when they look at a woman who wants to play at a high level. All the traditional female virtues—motherliness, sensuality, cooperativeness—can be made to look like vices—manipulation, seduction, collusion—if viewed in a certain way.

Michéle and Clinton have much in common. Both are operating in noted boys' clubs—that is, videogame design and politics. Both have had a lot of success and are considered to be unusually competent in their field. Both are subject to vicious anonymous attacks because of their gender. In the movie an employee puts Michéle's face on one of the videogame victims' bodies, in much the same way as people have created violent imagery or made violent suggestions featuring Clinton. Both have husbands with a certain history.

But Michéle is ruthless, a woman who will stop at nothing, no matter how unethical or cruel, to get what she wants. For some that's where the comparison with Clinton ends. For others, that's exactly where it feels most familiar. Watching Elle is like taking a refresher course on the phenomenon that Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine articulated before her concession speech—"it's uniquely difficult" for some people to put their trust in a woman who wants power.

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