This French Movie Is Redefining How Sexual-Assault Survivors Are Portrayed Onscreen

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They say distraction is the best remedy for grief. Elle, a new film from Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven, starring acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert, could be that salve — it tells the complicated story of a middle-aged, sexual-assault surviving, feminist hero who refuses to be victimized.

The film opens today in New York. In a recent interview, Huppert told the Cut she took the role because she has never seen a woman like this onscreen before. “She is a new prototype,” Huppert explained. “She is not a victim. But she is not the original avenger, like she takes the gun and shoots the guy. For me she is almost like a postfeminist character. She is beyond the victim, beyond the caricatures of that kind of avenger, and she also makes an experiment out of it.”

Based on the book by Philippe Djian, the movie is equal parts thriller, psychological portrait, and dark French comedy. Huppert plays Michèle, a chic, self-made Parisian woman who runs her own very successful gaming company.

Blogs have dismissed the movie as a “lighthearted rape-revenge story,” but the movie is far more layered, and complex. Refreshingly, Michèle is a complicated character with an equally complicated sex life. A fierce career woman, her younger male employees hate and harass her, yet she lets it roll off her back. Her father is a jailed serial killer; her mother spends the family money sleeping with younger men. Michèle, meanwhile, is having sex with her best friend’s husband.

In the first scene of the movie, Michèle is violently raped by a masked man. Over the course of the film, she uncovers and faces her attacker. But instead of reporting her assault to the police, Michèle changes her locks, buys pepper spray, and arms herself with a hammer. She handles the situation on her own terms, in a way that is completely personal and complex. (To go into any more detail would spoil the movie.)

“She takes whatever happens to her as a nonevent. She is a real survivor,” Huppert said. “She is also a very fearless person. She is a solitary, lonely character, and she is a very strong person. She has a plan. We don’t know what the plan is, but she has a plan.”

Elle opens today in New York, and November 16 in Los Angeles.

This Movie Is Redefining Portrayal of Sexual-Assault Victims