Over the course of his long career, the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has been at the centre of many a success and many a controversy. His second feature film, Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1973), is still the greatest Dutch box-office success in the Netherlands ever, but it was also regarded as a scandalous “porn-chic” picture for its insistent linkage of sexual “desire, death and decay”.1 His fifth feature, Spetters (1980), about three adolescent amateur motorcycle racers, not only met with a hostile reception from the press, but also prompted feminists and gays united in a group called NASA (Dutch Anti-Spetters Action) to protest both the “disgusting” representation of a blonde woman, who is described by a dark-haired rival as a “cashbox with a cunt”, and the film’s homophobic sentiments. Verhoeven replied that he had only given an intensified realistic portrayal of average teenagers in the countryside, and in his eyes, this depiction happens to include the homosexual panic that strikes such rural youngsters.2

Elle Verhoeven

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

A similar pattern is more or less to be silhouetted with subsequent Verhoeven controversies. Those of his films which have become the objects of dispute seem to endorse politically incorrect stances, be it homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992), the exploitation of women in Showgirls (1995), or the noisy militarism of Starship Troopers (1997). Because clear markers that these films are taking an ironic distance towards their respective subjects are almost entirely absent (if not missing altogether), the appreciation of such films depends upon one’s interpretive attitude. One reviewer on IMDb.com aptly described Starship Troopers as a “pro/anti”-war movie.3 This bombastic science-fiction action movie adopted its iconography from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries of the 1930s, and hence several scenes look like the propaganda pictures said to have prepared the Germans for war under the Nazis. At the same time, Starship Troopers is “anti-war” if one regards the film as a persiflage of this fascist iconography: a specific feature is imitated that the reader/viewer has to recognise as too deliberate an imitation (the vain are exposed in their vanity; the trivial in its pettiness; the ugly in its ugliness). In Starship Troopers, lessons about the benefits of brute force are used to recruit high school kids to serve the state. These new recruits find themselves fighting alien bugs to save the planet but – even leaving aside its over-the-top depiction of graphic gore – one could argue the film becomes excessively ugly and cynical with the realisation that the propaganda was a lure whose practical consequence was to use these youngsters as cannon fodder. There is a thin line between imitation (i.e.: adhering to the conventions of action-packed movies) and deliberate imitation (i.e.: consciously and explicitly overplaying those conventions), but this makes all the difference in Starship Troopers. Either the film is a straightforward blockbuster that offers a violent spectacle to its audience for entertainment, or a subversive anti-imperialist picture that mocks America’s foreign policy.

If Starship Troopers is a shrewd parody, the problem of readability has remained a moot point in the case of Showgirls. The almost universal critical dismissal of this film upon its release4 has encouraged a number of (cinephilic) critics to adopt a contrarian position and ardently embrace this most controversial film of Verhoeven’s oeuvre and to defend it without reservation. When Jacques Rivette said in 1998 that Showgirls is – like every Verhoeven film – “very unpleasant” because “it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes”, he meant it as a compliment.5 Showgirls is “flash-trash”, as the British “fan boy” scholar I. Q. Hunter asserts, but don’t let that fool you: it is also a wonderful send-up of “flash-trash”. A European director who takes delight in “frolic(ing) among the clichés of Hollywood blockbusters”, Verhoeven has created a work that excels in double coding, Hunter claimed.6 When a 2003 issue of the journal Film Quarterly devoted a round-table discussion to Showgirls – a rare honour for any film7 – the seven invited film scholars celebrated the monstrous obscenity of the film. Jeffrey Sconce claimed that its director should be hailed as the “Douglas Sirk of contemporary Hollywood”.8 The film was “more vulgar than vulgar”, but its perverse overidentification with trite conventions was not devoid of satire. Critique is articulated in a style that seems to mimic the sort of cinema Verhoeven criticises. Akira Mizuta Lippit argued that Showgirls defies “a consistent standard of judgment, since about this film, every claim and its opposite can be made”.9

Elle Verhoeven

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)

Expectations for a picture that might outdo even Basic Instinct or Showgirls in defiance were stirred up when Verhoeven mentioned in a press release that his film Elle – selected for the main competition of the 2016 Cannes film festival – had become a French production starring Isabelle Huppert because “no American actress would take on such an amoral movie”.10 This time, however, praise for the film was almost unanimous: the collective score of the fifty critics participating in the Todas Las Criticas poll gave it no less than an 8.92, the highest of all the films screened at Cannes this year.11 This critical acclaim for Elle has been mediated, I would like to suggest, by a number of challenging art-house films that were released since Verhoeven’s Hollywood output from the 1990s. In comparison with these, Elle is effectively ‘amorality lite’.

But even if Elle did not seem to disturb critics in terms of its moral values – it was a “dangerous delight”, according to the headline of The Guardian’s review12 – there still remained that familiar challenge for Verhoeven’s audience: how is it to be classified in terms of genre? How does one read its tone? Elle has a rape at its core, but it does not follow the usual rape-revenge cycle of films depicting rape, since the female victim – the middle-aged Parisian Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) – is not driven by vengeful motivations and has not lost her taste for witty retorts.13 A rape (without revenge) comedy, however apt a characterisation of the film, seems like an oxymoron. When asked about his main source of inspiration, Verhoeven cited Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)14 – a seemingly unlikely choice, but not so odd if we take a closer look. In what follows, I aim to read Elle in tandem with Renoir’s film, or rather do so through the prism of Todd McGowan’s excellent and elaborate 2015 analysis of this masterpiece. I argue both films imply that the attempt to uphold conventions – be they social or religious – can be more ‘perverted’ than so-called ‘deviant’ sexual desires.

Excessive Obedience

The Rules of the Game was so disliked by its contemporary audience that Renoir felt forced to truncate his film. His initial version of 113 minutes was cut short under pressure from his financial backers; the many boos at the 94-minute cut that was first screened prompted further editing, resulting in an 81-minute version that was released theatrically. For many years, the movie had the reputation of being a film maudit, before it gained a secure position in any list of “all-time best films”.15 André Bazin believed that The Rules of the Game was too enigmatic and required multiple viewings by an attentive audience, but McGowan claims the opposite: its first audience understood all too well that it was highly subversive.16 For McGowan, when films address a social injustice they often become instantly popular, since they “transgress the written laws of the social order”17: in the case of the unfortunate history of the Sioux in Kevin Costner’s 1990 movie Dances with Wolves, the mediation of the admiring look of the white lieutenant makes it easy to sympathise with the Sioux. Films like this, however, do not age well because the transgression they offer is not radical. In contrast, masterpieces can only generally be celebrated belatedly because they challenge unwritten social rules. Shifting between genres – from tragedy to drawing-room comedy and back again – purposefully denies the spectator a “comfortable position from which to view the film”18, but for McGowan The Rules of the Game was additionally unsettling because it confronts us with “our excessive obedience” to social laws.19 Largely unaware that the rules governing etiquette and the tacit codes of decency by which we live are rooted in hypocrisy, being made conscious of our adherence to them can be disconcerting.

Elle Verhoeven

Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)

At the film’s centre is a long weekend party at the country estate of the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), who has invited members of the upper class with their servants. Each time a character acts inappropriately during the party, McGowan argues, the disruptiveness of their behaviour is neutralised. For example, after the gardener Schumacher (Gaston Modot) chases his wife’s lover Marceau (Julien Carette) (another member of his staff) with a gun, both men accept the Marquis firing them. Immediately after losing their jobs, they become partners and are involved in the shooting of one of the guests. The Marquis gives a speech in which he justifies this murderous act as a “deplorable accident and no more”, so that there is no reason to create a fuss about it. This conclusion emphasises the general pattern: regardless of what might happen, let no event interfere with the flow of everyday life. The best illustration of this pattern is the indifference among the guests whether their partners cheat on them, as long as the infidelity is not made public. Everyone knows that the Marquis is having an affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély), but no one brings it up. After Christine, his wife (Nora Gregor), sees him through binoculars caressing his mistress for a farewell kiss, she visits her “rival” but then inquires whether she is also annoyed by his mania for smoking in bed. In turn, Christine herself is having liaisons with no fewer than three men during the weekend, but this causes little consternation. The Marquis is searching for his wife, but one cannot shake off the impression that he is doing so because – as a husband – he is supposed to keep an eye on Christine. Everyone in the community is committed to maintaining social order, and the most stunning effect of this effort, says McGowan, is that the characters do not hold any lasting grudges towards one another. Let bygones be bygones: the prompt amity between the gardener and his wife’s lover testifies to this overall attitude. This capacity for forgiveness should not be mistaken for charity, however. Rather, it is an expression of “widespread cynicism”20: everyone, whether a servant or a member of the upper class, is prepared to perform their socially allocated roles.

To articulate this allegiance to these unwritten social rules, Renoir shot his film in deep focus, rendering the foreground and background equally sharp. In visual terms, no character is privileged over another. This formal device conveys the similarities between masters and servants rather than their differences.21 There is only one thing that could potentially spoil the party: in the opening scene, aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) is greeted as a hero by a huge crowd after making a successful transatlantic flight in a Caudron airplane. But just as he is about to be interviewed on national radio, his friend Octave (Jean Renoir) informs him that Christine is not there, and André cannot hide his disappointment. This is a violation of the unwritten rules: one is supposed to keep quiet about one’s liaison with a married woman.22 The too-candid André is not on the guest list for the party, but Octave persuades Christine to invite him. She agrees because she does not want to reduce “the idol of the crowds to despair”. André could become a disruptive force because he is not well-versed in social performance, but rather acts in accordance with his genuine feelings. His “authentic” behaviour risks being at odds with the necessary compliance with social conventions. Only near the end of the film is it revealed that André is perfectly capable of obeying the rules: when Christine proposes that they secretly leave together, he insists that his code of honour demands he tell the Marquis. “That’s how it’s done”, he replies succinctly. His deep affection for Christine does not warrant a violation of this principle: out of courtesy, he refuses to seize the opportunity when it arises.

Elle Verhoeven

André (Roland Toutain) and Robert in The Rules of the Game

Bearing in mind that my aim is to compare Verhoeven’s Elle with Renoir’s sprawling mixture of “comedy, tragedy and tension”,23 I contend that, in a scene in Elle which is of little importance to the plot, Michèle’s neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) is revealed as Verhoeven’s equivalent to André from The Rules of the Game. When Patrick comes to help Michèle close the window guards on a stormy evening, he sees on her table an illustration of a Grumman Wildcat, an American fighter aircraft, only in use during World War II. It is his dream, he tells her, to renovate such a plane and make his own transatlantic flight. And just as André is a potentially disruptive force, Patrick too is a ticking time-bomb in terms of maintaining social order ever since Michèle exposed him as the balaclava-wearing rapist during one of his attacks of her. Despite knowing his identity, she continues to socialise with him and at one point asks him, “Did you like it?”, to which he has nothing more to say than “It was necessary”. His answer does not contain the personal pronoun “I”, an indication that he wants to give the impression as if this urge is beyond his control. There is always the risk that this urge will crack through the social mask of a figure who appears to be a handsome and forthright citizen. Just as the outsider André in The Rules of the Game ultimately sticks to gentlemanly codes in an excessive manner (“That’s how it’s done”), Patrick too knows how to keep up the appearance of an extremely polite stockbroker. Before she had been aware of his dark side, Michèle had been attracted to Patrick, and she daringly touched his genitals with her foot during a Christmas dinner she has organised. Patrick composed his face so that Michèle’s attempted seduction went unnoticed by the other guests: only Michèle’s part-time lover Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), is aware that Michèle is flirting with Patrick.

Elle Verhoeven

Robert and Patrick are in fact two sides of the same coin. The latter can only get satisfaction from dominating a woman, while Robert considers his adultery to be just a playful game. When Michèle takes the conscious risk of descending into Patrick’s cellar, we can presume that she is more intrigued than appalled by her psychopath neighbour. She is willing to offer herself as pliant prey, but Patrick says this does not work for him. He can get excited only if she resists (or at least pretends to) so that he feels he has no other option than to violently hit her. Robert’s logic, by contrast, is that if he performs his role as an “insensitive” and “unpredictable” guy well, he will be offered a good fuck as a reward. Michèle’s every gesture is part of this game: in his view, her flirtation with Patrick is a test. When she does not feel like having sex, he thinks she is “playing dead” in order to turn him on. Robert would be an ideal guest at the houseparty in The Rules of the Game, for he is always plotting and scheming about how to secretly continue his affair with Michèle. He wants to keep the game running, which it does until she decides to tell his wife (who is also her business partner) during the launch party for a new computer game. Anna is visibly distressed, prompting Robert to ask Michèle why. The latter coolly replies: “I have stopped telling lies”.

Karma Chameleon

In Robert’s eyes, Michèle’s confession is outrageous, just as it would be if the same decision was made by any of the guests at the Marquis’s château in The Rules of the Game. Michèle’s remark is significant because she indirectly admits that she was living a life of deceit. In that respect, she is similar to Christine from Renoir’s film, who tells her husband’s mistress Geneviève that she is pleased with her “helping hand”: thanks to her, the Marquis is less attentive to what she is doing. Like Michèle hosting her Christmas dinner, Christine too is a hostess during the weekend at the heart of Renoir’s film, but nonetheless she is – as an Austrian – an outsider. According to André himself, Christine needs him to look after her, because “after all, the girl’s not at home, she’s in a foreign country; the people around her don’t speak her language”. Michèle too is an outsider, known as the “psychopath girl” since her father was arrested in 1976 and revealed to be a serial killer responsible for 27 murders. With her father appealing for clemency, a documentary about the case is broadcast again on television, featuring footage of the then ten-year-old Michèle, appearing on the screen with a blank look. When the story is back in the news forty years later, a woman in a self-service restaurant throws her food in Michèle’s lap, hissing at her that she’s “scum”. On the one hand, Michèle’s status as an outsider is confirmed; yet on the other hand, she is able to keep her temper under control.

The scene is emblematic of Michèle. At a very young age she was stigmatised, but she acts as if her dark past has not demoralised her. She apparently copes with her traumatic childhood memories by being pragmatic, adapting to situations like a chameleon. That she has mastered these continual readjustments is also proven by her professional standing: once working in the domain of literature, she switched to the more profitable business of computer games. One of the brusque editing transitions within Elle suddenly confronts the audience with an animated game where a huge orc brutally assaults a female figure. Michèle does not express shock (as we might assume her to do in the context of her own rape), but dryly comments that the interaction is still too “timid”, signifying both her calculating nature and commercially oriented attitude.

Elle Verhoeven

It is implied that the once so-called “psychopathic girl” could integrate herself into society by being both opportunistic and by rejecting contact with her father. Her life is structured around her repression of his existence, resulting in a refusal to make real commitments to people. Tellingly, Anna is on much closer terms with Michèle’s son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) than Michèle herself. As she tells a nurse, she met Anna when they were in the same hospital giving birth to their babies. When Anna’s child died, she asked Michèle if she could breastfeed her newborn. Favouring pragmatism over motherly principles, Michèle agreed. Whether it be towards her son or anyone else, she does not have highly developed affections for others.

But her shallow relationships do not contradict the fact that Michèle is embedded in a broad social network, in which she considers herself a hub. Though Peter de Bruijn (a critic from influential Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad) complained that this film is crammed with developments as if “more is more” is its guiding principle,24 the high number of characters makes sense from the perspective of Michèle’s character. Rather than investing time in relationships, she wants to simply oversee them. When her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) talks about his new flame Hélène (Vimala Pons), she immediately calls her son for information about the woman, Googles her, enters the yoga centre where she practices and invites her for Christmas dinner, leaving Hélène flabbergasted. To complicate matters further, Michèle does not shy away from nasty tricks: she puts a toothpick in Hélène’s food and she deliberately plays the role of clumsy car driver and ruins the front of her ex’s car.

Michèle’s pragmatism is visually underscored by an often slightly mobile camera25 and by the specific placement of Michèle in space: unlike Renoir’s film, there is no consistent use of deep focus here, since in many shots, either Michèle or her environment is not in sharp focus and, frequently, the focus changes within shots. It feels at times as if the camera in Elle has to be ready to adapt to new, unexpected changes in mise-en-scène, reflecting Michèle’s life after her father’s arrest and how it consisted too of a chain of readjustments. Because of this, being raped appears to have little effect on Michèle, encapsulated precisely through how the rape scenes are represented, ranging as they do from oblique to explicit. During the first rape, the screen is black and we hear the sound of breaking tableware, of a slap in the face, and abrasive grunts. The first shot of the film is a close-up of her cat Marty, looking off-screen, who after a few seconds turns around and calmly walks away. While witnessing a rape would assume an empathetic reaction by an onlooker, here the black humour is immediate as Verhoeven highlights the cat’s apparent indifference.

Elle Verhoeven

Later we get a clearer depiction of this rape scene, when the cat’s presence prompts Michèle to recall the scene. This flashback makes it evident that Marty’s hesitation when called inside gave the perpetrator time to violently enter the house. Whereas the first rape was represented obliquely to signify that the attack was too much of a shock for Michèle to recall it directly, the second rape is much more explicit, but contains its own shock in the revelation that Patrick is the assailant. Two more subsequent rape scenes are also explicit, hinting at the possibility that Michèle may derive a certain enjoyment from them. It seems as if she can accommodate any trauma, since no experience can be as terrible as what had befallen her as a child. When she casually mentions the first assault at dinner with her ex-husband, Anna and Robert, she says simply “at least, I suppose I have been raped”. When the waiter arrives with champagne at that moment, Robert asks him to wait five minutes. Yet this scene is typical of how Michèle copes with trauma: every brutal act is, to quote the Marquis from The Rules of the Game, a “deplorable accident and no more”. For Michèle, rape is a minor nuisance, and Robert knows that in less than five minutes she will get a grip on herself again. And she does: “Let’s order food”, she says.

Whereas Michèle can be characterised as chillingly pragmatic, Michèle’s mother Irène (Judith Magre) is portrayed as licentious. She not only undergoes plastic surgery from time to time, but parades around with a young gigolo. When the mother announces during the Christmas dinner her plans to marry Ralf – whose name Michèle bitchily pretends to have forgotten – everybody else cheers, but Michèle makes a brief but uncontrollable sound, a mixture of a shriek and a laugh that makes all the guests fall silent. Before the dinner meal is continued, she calls her mother “grotesque”. If her internecine father and her frivolous mother are embodiments of shamelessness, it is evident that Michèle has not been raised under a regime of guilt; at best, this family can feel remorse for something one regrets having done. When Anna is convinced that her husband has committed adultery, but not knowing that it has been with Michèle, the latter says: “Shame isn’t strong enough an emotion to prevent us doing things”. Even though she has nothing more than a secret affair with Robert – and not a show-off liaison like her mother does – it is clear that Michèle does not mind the pursuit of solipsistic pleasures. The only reason why she started to make love to him, she explains to his wife Anna, was because he happened to be around when she felt like fucking.

Piety Turned into Perversion

If American actresses would rather not play a character like Michèle, this would surely stem from the character’s perverse sexual desires: and just think that so far I have not even mentioned her masturbation scene.26 Critics remained largely unshocked by Elle, apparently because Verhoeven’s film does not surpass the risqué nature of post-millennial European hardcore art films like La pianiste (The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001), Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau, 2004), Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, Catherine Breillat, 2004), 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2005) or Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1 & 2 (Lars von Trier, 2013).27 So privileged was Elle that it was even selected as the French submission for the Academy Awards in the category of the Best Foreign Language Film.28 Though the selection indicates that a film about a woman’s presumed sexual perversion is no longer as controversial as it would have been twenty years ago, Elle contains another potential hot potato revealed in the film’s final dénouement. Insofar as we can think of Michèle as unscrupulous, then Patrick’s wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is perhaps even more so, as I will explain further shortly. She seems righteous and presents a friendly façade, but piety can be a considered a kind of perversion too (or rather, it can be a more disruptive perversion than Michèle’s sexual escapades).

Elle Verhoeven

Despite her opportunism, there is at least a moral limit for Michèle, which her mother wants her to transgress: Michèle refuses to visit her father in prison, because he is a “monster”, but Irène insists that she should acknowledge him as a “man”. On the way to the hospital after Irène’s stroke during Christmas dinner, she asks her daughter once more to go see him. But Michèle does not change her mind: she never wants to see him again, neither on Earth nor in the hereafter (although, as she is quick to add over coffee with her mother, she does not believe in an afterlife anyway). This conversation suggests that her mother is a religious person, perhaps a Catholic. Although it is not heavily emphasised, it is striking that Irène and the pious Rebecca sit together watching the Pope’s midnight church service during Christmas dinner. Whereas Irene thinks her husband should be forgiven (as befits a good Catholic), Michèle’s lack of interest in religion is part of her rejection of her father, notably described through voice-o­ver in the documentary about him as a practicing Catholic.

Elle Verhoeven

Let me articulate the distinction between Michèle and a ‘good’ Catholic via their different stance towards mendacity. For Michèle, there is nothing wrong with little white lies, in so far as it helps her to play her part in keeping the social order running. This chimes with a fundamental lesson from The Rules of the Game, voiced by Octave (played by Renoir himself): “We’re in a period when everyone tells lies: pharmacists’ hand-bills, governments, the radio, the cinema, the newspapers … So how could you expect us poor individuals not to lie as well?” Once Michèle stops lying (which only takes place after both her parents have died) there is an immediate symbolic short-circuit. Due to their marital crisis, Anna expels Robert from their house and he starts drinking. Whereas Michèle lies when it suits her, according to Verhoeven’s film Catholics have elevated lying into a principle, regardless of the consequences. While Rebecca and Irène are watching the Pope, there is a cut to Robert putting down the word désastre (disaster) in a game of Scrabble. Echoing the placement of the word “murderer” in a game of Scrabble in Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) this too is highly significant, the editing uniting the word “disaster” with the church service, and thus implying Catholicism can lead to terrible results.

When Rebecca moves out after Patrick’s death, she tells Michèle that he was a good man but a “tormented soul”. And, after a brief pause, she adds: “Thanks that you have been able to help him in his bad moments, for a while at least”. Michèle appears too perplexed to be able to reply promptly. Rebecca, she realises, was not only aware of her husband’s impulses, but knew that Michèle was his victim. But Michèle was never comforted by Rebecca: no doubt Rebecca knew (just like Patrick) that Michèle would not go to the police, due to her reputation as a “psychopathic girl”. Hence Michèle was left to her own devices by Rebecca, out of consideration for a “tormented soul”.

Rebecca’s refusal to warn her neighbour can be paralleled – again – with the culture of deceit in Renoir’s film, and with the Marquis’s attempt to cover-up the crime, in particular. In The Rules of the Game, the shooting of André was based upon a misperception: Schumacher believed that the man he had shot was about to run away with his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), but the woman was in fact Christine, wearing his wife’s cloak. The murder came out of the blue; nobody saw it coming. The Marquis used the unforeseen circumstance to legitimise the shooting as a deplorable accident. In Elle, wannabe pilot Patrick is caught in the act of rape and Michèle’s son will strike him fatally. It turns out, however, that someone else had been in a position to intervene all along: conscious of her husband’s anguish, Rebecca kept aloof. Apparently she took to heart the Catholic dictum of “love thy neighbour”, but doing so at the expense of her very own neighbour whose life she literally jeopardised. Rebecca’s unconditional readiness to forgive Patrick’s vile behaviour is risky business, for as Slavoj Žižek observes in relation to Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1996), “when we trespass a certain limit of compassion, we enter a shadowy domain in which compassion turns into perversion, in which the concern for the criminal overshadows the suffering of his victim”.29

If The Rules of the Game was a subversive laying bare of the obedience to unwritten social laws and its associated culture of widespread cynicism, then Elle shows how this cynicism and a regime of deceit can fuel perverted sexual desires. Elle also suggests, however, that these desires are less problematic than the more socially acceptable obedience of religious principles. Paraphrasing the Marquis’s final speech in The Rules of the Game, Rebecca might have dismissed any lasting physical harm inflicted upon Michèle as a “deplorable accident and no more”. This unveiling of Rebecca’s overtly compassionate stance could have had a subversive and provocative impact, disclosing the negative side of such blind adhesion to Catholicism. If Verhoeven’s rape-without-revenge comedy provoked more praise than shock upon its release in 2016, it is because the exposure of Catholicism as a kind of perversion is no longer particularly scandalous in an era when a film like Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) can win a Best Picture Oscar for its revelations about the real-life scandals that currently riddle the Catholic Church.



  1. Xavier Mendik, “Turks fruit/Turkish Delight”, in Ernest Mathijs, ed., The Cinema of the Low Countries (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), pp. 109-18.
  2. See: Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven: De biografie (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2008).
  3. User ‘Jamesjlr2 from Houston’, “The Greatest Pro/Anti-War Movie Ever Made”, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120201/reviews?ref_=tt_ov_rt
  4. Verhoeven received Razzies (Golden Raspberry Awards) for Worst Picture and Worst Director.
  5. Frédéric Bonnaud, “The Captive Lover – An Interview with Jacques Rivette”, Trans. Kent Jones, Senses of Cinema, Issue 16, September 2001, originally published in French 1998. http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/jacques-rivette/rivette-2/
  6. I.Q. Hunter, “Beaver Las Vegas: A Fan Boy’s Defence of Showgirls” (2000), in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, eds., The Cult Film Reader (Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education, 2008), pp. 472-81.
  7. At the time only Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) had received this honour.
  8. Jeffrey Sconce, “I Have Grown Weary of Your Tiresome Cinema”, Film Quarterly, 56.3 (2003): p. 45.
  9. Akira Mizuta Lippit, “Half-Star: Showgirls & Sexbombs”, Film Quarterly, 56, 3 (2003): pp. 34.
  10. Quoted in Benjamin Lee, “Isabelle Huppert: Elle is not about a woman ‘accepting her rapist’”, The Guardian, 21 May 2016.
  11. “Cannes 2016”, Todas Las Criticas, www.todaslascriticas.com.ar/cannes/2016.
  12. Xan Brooks, “Elle Review: Paul Verhoeven’s Brazen Rape Revenge Comedy is a Dangerous Delight”, The Guardian, 21 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/21/elle-review-paul-verhoevens-brazen-revenge-comedy-is-a-dangerous-delight.
  13. I cannot resist quoting one of the many: “Bimbos with big boobs are no big deal for you, but beware of women who have read The Second Sex. They eat you raw and spit you out”, Michèle tells her ex-husband who is dating a woman writing a dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir.
  14. Paul Verhoeven, quoted in Ronald Rovers, “‘Zo leuk is het niet om een film te maken’: Paul Verhoeven over Elle”, De Filmkrant May 2016, http://www.filmkrant.nl/TS_mei_2016/13770
  15. In the 2012 edition of a poll organised once a decade by Sight & Sound of the Greatest Films of All Time, La Règle du jeu ranked fourth on the critics’ list.
  16. Todd McGowan. Psychoanalytic Film Theory and The Rules of the Game (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 153.
  17. Ibid., p. 107.
  18. Ibid., p. 100.
  19. Ibid., p. 95.
  20. Ibid., p. 110.
  21. Ibid., p. 126.
  22. Ibid., p. 118.
  23. During the press conference at the Cannes film festival, Verhoeven used these terms to characterise Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. See Anne Thompson, “Cannes: Elle Director Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert Defend Controversial Rape Thriller”, IndieWire, 21 May 2016. http://www.indiewire.com/2016/05/cannes-elle-director-paul-verhoeven-and-isabelle-huppert-defend-controversial-rape-thriller-289033/.
  24. Peter de Bruijn, “Verhoevens Elle is technisch briljant, maar soms ook tikkeltje saai”, NRC Handelsblad, 31 May 2016. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2016/05/31/stilistisch-briljante-maar-overvolle-mix-tien-ja-1623629-a92149.
  25. DOP Stéphane Fontaine actually used two-camera set-ups, and the slight mobility was also meant to suggest that someone could be watching.
  26. This masturbation scene explicitly recalls Isabelle Huppert’s role of Erika Kohut in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). Unlike Michèle, Erika lives in a “world of maternal jouissance”: her mother has aimed at having total possession of her daughter’s body and will, and tries to control her every move. Due to the mother’s overinvestment in her daughter’s life, Erika cannot become a subject of desire. Her mother has decided for her that she should become an excellent piano performer of Schubert. Erika has internalized her mother’s demand so absolutely that any pleasurable deviation from this goal will result in feelings of intense guilt on her part, whereas such feelings seem foreign to Elle’s Michèle. See for an excellent analysis, Jean Wyatt, “Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher”, American Imago, 62, 4 (2005): pp. 453-82.
  27. Melissa Silverstein is one of the exceptions. In her opinion, Elle is “epically fucked up”, because Michèle fulfills every single male fantasy. According to her, there was “so much assault in this movie there was nothing comedic about it”. Melissa Silverstein, “TIFF 2016: Isabelle Huppert Seen Through the Male and Female Gaze”, https://blog.womenandhollywood.com/tiff-2016-isabelle-huppert-seen-through-the-male-and-female-gaze-bf851c0323bb#.8i3h2a6n4
  28. This was a surprise, for it is only the second time France has submitted a film made by a non-French director after Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) (1972) and after Moshé Mirzahi’s La vie devant soi (Madame Rosa) (1977). Both these films happened to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I do not include Deniz Gamze Ergüven whose Mustang (2015) was the French submission last year, because she is Turkish-French. She was born in Ankara, but moved to France at a very young age.
  29. Slavoj Žižek, “Death and the Maiden”, Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright, eds. The Žižek Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), pp. 206-221.

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is an Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is an author of among others Film Narratology, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film and its “sequel” Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis.

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