FRANCE: Elle (2016)

Shattering the Glass Ceiling

by Haydn Wilfinger

“The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation,” (Mulvey 809 qtd. in Film: Psychology, Society, and Ideology). While Laura Mulvey, a film theorist best known for establishing the Male Gaze Theory in Film, takes liberties in her discussion of cinematic female figures, assuming only women are the object of the camera’s voyeuristic glance and that all directors are men, her view of a male-centered industry is indisputable. Almost 80% of all filmmakers in the US are men; more concerning, only 4% of the highest grossing US movies between 2007 and 2017 were helmed by women (Navarro; Cooney). Based on a recent Europe-focused study, a mere 27% fall2017 French films were female-directed (Scott).

As evidence demonstrates, film as a medium is dominated by the male perspective; as such, it serves as a vessel for men’s desires, with the camera honing in on the female figure, prying into what’s hidden, what’s private without remorse. It’s captivated by her movement, latching onto her like a parasite, its look, and by extension, his look, constant, unflinching, an unyielding examination of her. The man’s gaze is quick to critique but ever-present, unwilling to look away even in her most vulnerable moments; the woman is powerless, unaware of the attention she attracts.

Paul Verhoeven’s startling and transgressive film, Elle, initially fulfills Mulvey’s perspective of cinema. Focused on an icy and complex woman, Michéle Leblanc (played by Isabelle Huppert), and her attempts to uncover her masked rapist, Verhoeven’s camera mercilessly hounds her, trespassing into her office and peering into her house. In a particularly alarming scene, we track Michéle from across the street as she closes her windows and turns off her lights, the film slightly shaking as if the man is holding the camera, his grip unsteady as he frantically follows her figure. In moments like these, Leblanc’s back or side is facing the screen. By disallowing Huppert from engaging with the film, Verhoeven steals her agency, forcing the audience to prioritize his perception of her instead of the truth. Even when Leblanc glances in the direction of the frame, she looks through it, oblivious to its watching eye and one-sided interpretation.

Yet Verhoeven has larger ambitions in mind, and while certain sequences conform to Mulvey’s standards, with male sexual desire and tension that engulfs the frame, Verhoeven ultimately adopts a thornier portrait. In a perverse shift of roles, Michéle is allured by the attention she receives, capitalizing on this male’s dark impulses to service her own lust, navigating this power imbalance stealthily.

For the majority of the piece, Elle rejects genre conventions and Mulvey’s insights, instead adopting the female gaze to contextualize Michéle’s worth and experiences. While her sense of security is stripped by the film’s camera which latches onto her presence in both public and private settings and the unknown assailant who reduces her to a vessel for taboo pleasure, Verhoeven never doubts Michéle’s place in the world, painting her as a passionate and capable woman who, undeterred by the stereotypes and expectations that dog her every move, assumes the dominant role in both her business and personal life. It is Michéle who enlivens her

co-workers to further sexualize and heighten the violence in their new video game. It is Michéle who proves a worthy adversary to her rapist, afraid of his motives, but unwilling to kneel to his threats- fighting with household objects, weapons, and words to free herself from the patriarchy. In a clever twist on the voyeurism formula, it is Michéle who looks down at her male neighbor through the window, binoculars in hand, masturbating to his movements. Ultimately, “It [the female gaze} is a subtle but strong way of using lenses to enhance more than just raw masculine consumption” (Mead), and while Michéle remains trapped within this male-centered system, she carves out her personal space within it in which the power dynamics are reversed. At times Verhoeven indulges in Michéle’s sexual currency, accentuating her figure through both distant tracking shots and various states of undress, but he never allows the male gaze to suffocate her ambition, her intelligence, or her agency.

Elle’s insistent portrait of a woman resisting and overcoming patriarchal customs mirrors today’s society’s attempts to overthrow the repressive global film industry which prioritized male stars and employees, ignoring the abuse and exclusivity they perpetuated. According to a recent US Today survey, which questioned 843 women who work in Hollywood, 94% of them shared that “they have experienced some form of harassment or assault, often by an older individual in a position of power over the accuser” (Puente and Kelly).

Now, sparked by the global explosion of the #MeToo Movement, the decades of silence have transformed into a wall of deafening noise, with male executives and supposed industrial titans being exposed for their crimes. On October 5, 2017, the New York Times published an exposé, uncovering decades of misconduct sustained by Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, sparking an expansive investigation into dozens of sexual assault and rape allegations connected to him (“Harvey Weinstein timeline: How the scandal unfolded”). Less than 3 years later, Weinstein stood in chains, his predation visible to all.

A similar fate awaited Roman Polanski, some 40 years ago, after being placed on trial for statutory rape, before he fled to France. His most recent film, J’accuse’, while met with rave reviews from critics, has been challenged amid fresh allegations of his misconduct, this time from Valentine Monnier, a photographer and actress, who alleges rape (Tidey).

The tide is turning. Those who have gatekept film for years, suppressing the voices of those beneath them, are losing their privilege, their actions criminalized, their exclusion recognized. Films are for everyone; they’re an escape available to all. It’s our duty to uphold that promise.

Works Cited