“There is a line that must never be crossed.”
As an Isabelle Huppert fan, I was delighted to watch her in the recent film, Elle. She excels at playing difficult, non-mainstream women who have the tendency to go nuclear when things turn south. Elle was one of the more interesting French films I’ve seen lately, but the ending was a bit disappointing. I hoped the book by Philippe Djian would bring a little more clarity to the character of Michèle, and I was not disappointed.
The film is quite faithful to the book with just a few minor differences. In the film, Michèle owns a video game company and that job allows for a great deal of visual scope when exploring violence against women (and the violence of video games in general). The book, which depicts Michèle as the emotionless owner of a production company allows us to enter Michèle’s head and offers trains of thought that arguably explain her actions.
The book opens in the aftermath of Michèle’s brutal rape at the hands of a masked intruder. The shock of this act isn’t based so much in the aggression, but in Michèle’s actions afterwards. She doesn’t call the police. Instead she picks herself up, takes a bath and orders sushi for her son and his pregnant girlfriend.
This is not to say that Michèle isn’t shaken by the attack. She is. She buys Mace, changes the locks, searches the house with a meat cleaver, and becomes increasing aware of the vulnerability of living alone in a large house now that her grown son, Vincent and her ex-husband, Richard have left. It takes her a few days before she tells anyone, and it’s as though she hugs the information about the rape close. She can’t stop thinking about it, but at the same time she acknowledges that she’s “known worse with men I freely chose.”
I am very upset about the way I’ve reacted to this whole thing, about the confusion it’s caused in me, seemingly more unimaginable and obscure with each passing day. I hate having to struggle against myself, to wonder who I am. Not having access to what is buried, buried so deep inside me that only the tiniest, vaguest murmur can be heard far away, like some forgotten, heart-wrenching and totally incomprehensible song.
Almost from the first page we know that Michèle is different, and that difference can be traced back to her relationship with her father who’s locked up for a horrendous crime spree, the nature of which is revealed as the book continues. Michèle’s 75-year-old mother is still alive, and although she’s supported by her daughter, she maintains a young lover and intends, to Michèle’s disgust, to marry him. In the past, Michèle has “eliminated” her mother’s suitors by telling outrageous lies, but this lover can’t be shaken off. Michèle thinks her mother is “a real slut.”
She looks like one of those terrifying old actresses-completely plastered over, breast lift at five thousand a pair, eyes all agleam, tanned to the hilt.
The rape occurs just before Christmas, and the novel unfolds over a short period of time with Michèle arranging a Christmas dinner to which she invites Richard and his new girlfriend, a hot, young thing, and the neighbours across the street, banker, Patrick and his wife, Rébecca. We see Michèle in the context of her complicated relationships with her ex husband, her best friend, Anna, Anna’s slimy “soulless” husband (and Michèle’s lover), Robert, Michèle’s son Vincent and his pregnant (by another man) girlfriend, Josie. Michèle has unemotional, but clinically proficient sex with Robert, and isn’t troubled by the fact that she’s banging her best friend’s husband. He was there at the right time and fills a need, but now she’s bored with him and wants to move on.
Everyone in Michèle’s life wants something from her. Her ex wants her to promote his lacklustre screenplays, her son “imbecile” Vincent who’s finally got a job at McDonalds wants financial support for himself, Josie, and the baby (whose father is in a prison in Thailand). Michèle’s mother also wants financial support, and Robert wants sex on demand regardless of Michèle’s mood or their location. It’s interesting that no-one wants affection or love, and that’s just as well as Michèle doesn’t have any to give away–well except for the cat. The novel excels by hinting at various motives behind Michèle’s behaviour, and it’s possible to walk away from the novel with multiple answers for what she does. For this reader this novel is much much darker than a revenge tale. Sometimes Michèle recalls her father–a man who seemed normal until he wasn’t. Similarly her rapist has “two faces” and in certain moments, she sees “a rather unfortunate overlapping of his two faces, which makes him at once attractive and repulsive, and not far from resembling my father.” We’ll never know what motivates Michèle, but for this reader, it’s a lot darker than the ‘cat-and-mouse’ suggested by the book’s blurb. The rape unleashes something in Michèle:
It’s this other me coming out, though I fight it tooth and nail. It;s a me that invites confusion, flux, unexplored territories
Elle will make my best-of-year list.
Translated by Michael Katims
Also by Philippe Djian & also recommended: Consequences