Welcome to Cold Comforts, a recurring column in which Soraya Roberts writes about the grim, harrowing, and downright bizarre movies and television shows that she nevertheless can’t stop watching, over and over again.
Put aside the rape for a minute. Look at this house. This beautiful centuries-old stone home with the creeping ivy. These two stories in the suburbs of Paris. This enclave with the black metal fence and the bird-filled garden. It’s hard to get an idea of the exact dimensions when you are only seeing parts of it in Elle, but there is a den in this place, there is a fireplace, and at one point, when the main character, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is unknowingly flirting with the man who raped her, there is the casual mention of 20 windows. And these aren’t small windows. They are floor-to-ceiling jobs—glass doors opening onto courtyards, glass doors opening onto little stone balconies. This house is perfect—the perfect home.
And inside, oh God, the space! AND THE PAINTINGS! WITH THOSE SPOTLIGHTS! The bookshelves! The sculptures! The wood floors! The LUSH everything—rich duvets, warm carpeted bedrooms, the coffin-like modern tub with minimalist Chanel-looking soaps. Classical music imprinted on … everything, including this woman. This woman who owns this glorious home, who can afford it no problem because she runs her own company—that office! The exposed concrete! The metal staircase!—a company where they make video games even though she came from publishing. Who cares! She eats her jam toast with the rest of the staff in that beautiful workspace that must cost her a fortune. She click-clacks through the desks in her silk shirts until 1 a.m., then returns home to her cozy cashmeres and her rich, berry-red structured dresses, her slinky wraps, her turtlenecks, her printed knee-length skirts, her leather boots; and outside, in the frost, her sunglasses and camel coat and very expensive-looking designer grey leather purse slung over her arm like nothing.
This is my mother. Not literally. But it makes sense that this would be my last Cold Comforts column, not just because Elle is a Christmas movie—it takes place around Christmas, with lots of warm reds, Christmas decorations, Christmas parties—but because it is sort of my return to the womb. Everything about this woman that brings me succor was established—inadvertently or not—by my own mother, and I’m sure, the mothers of so many others. That woman who is the boss at work, the boss at home, running that beautiful home, in those beautiful clothes. That independence. The incredible competence, the incredible efficiency, orbited by people (particularly men) who often have neither. To me, perhaps to many women, this is the model adult: singular, strong, and more than a little cold. Everything, in other words, I see myself as not. Everything, in other words, that if I were, life would be perfect.
I acknowledge that is a controversial thing to say when the woman in Elle, in the opening scene, is violently raped. But the brutality of the masked man slamming her glass door into her face, throwing her down, ripping off her clothes and leaving her bleeding is only that much more out of place, that much easier to cast aside, for how seamlessly Michèle moves on from it (not to mention her cat, the only witness, who coolly departs the scene mid-crime). She sits up dazed for a moment, her chest naked, before sweeping up, still in her black patent heels, what must be very expensive broken wine glasses she has pulled off a table in the melee, dumping them in the trash. Then dumps her clothes in the trash, those expensive clothes, that pricey lingerie, and then washes it all away in the tub, including the blooming bit of blood between her legs, which she gathers and dissipates in the surrounding suds. “Nutjobs, I’m used to,” she will later say. “They’re my specialty.”
This is the thing with Michèle, she has the freedom that comes from experiencing the worst—her father was a rampage killer, no kidding, who brought her along for the ride when she was a kid—and she knows that nothing could ever be that bad again. That gives her immense freedom. It’s a freedom that allows her to tell her lover flatly, “I don’t want to fuck you anymore,” to command the nerdy kid at work who turned a video of her into DIY porn to drop his pants, and to ultimately tell the still-fresh corpse of her father, who she is seeing for the first time in prison, who took his own life the moment he heard she was visiting, “I killed you by coming here.”
Played by the 5-foot-2 Huppert, who is perhaps 90 pounds soaking wet, Michèle’s tiny stature makes her ability to command a room all the more commanding. And she is very much in charge, in every space. It doesn’t hurt that she is surrounded by simpering males. Her loutish son with his harpy girlfriend works at a fast-food chain and expects his mom to pay for his oversized apartment. Her broke husband who is constantly trying to sell her on a terrible video game idea because his literary career has stalled. That nerdy kid at work who is in love with her, even though he keeps joking about it. But it’s not just the men. There’s Michèle’s mother, whose apartment she also owns, whose young gigolo boyfriend and Botox she also funds. Michèle even commands the hot, much younger grad student her ex-husband is sleeping with, imperiously waltzing into her yoga studio looking like a million bucks. Fuckability? That is nothing compared to the power of not giving a fuck.
“The boss here is me,” Michèle says, unfazed, as she is insulted to her face by one of her employees. This is a woman who has no time for mess. It is why she considers the arts commune from which her daughter-in-law arises to be a community of cretins. Why she continues to love her husband but also left him for hitting her. No doubt it’s why she dropped publishing (her stance against the arts, my precarious position in the arts, is one more reason why I find so much comfort in her). This is mess. And it’s not for her. She has already dealt with the biggest mess of all.
This is why it takes so long for Michèle to tell anyone she’s been raped. She quietly visits the hospital, changes her locks, buys pepper spray. “That’s it. It’s done,” she says. “We don’t have to draw it out.” The same way she refuses to give her father any more power over her than he already has, she will not give her rapist the satisfaction. So, when she crashes her car and the most efficient thing to do is to call that rapist—turns out he is her neighbor (“Who could ever imagine such a thing?” Michèle will later tell a cop with a straight face)—she does. And that’s why, with her torn-up leg and her rapist in front of her, she is not the vulnerable one. It is he who is kneeling at Michèle’s feet when she asks him of the assault, “How was it?” And when in the end he tries once more to exert power over her and he is cracked over the head by her son, she says nothing. He unmasks himself and she says nothing. Distressed, blood pouring down his face, he asks, “Why?” and she says nothing.
Instead, Michèle comforts her crying child, the son who has fallen apart even though it is his mother who just narrowly avoided an assault. This woman, this earth mother, is once again the source of comfort, because she found her own long ago in the knowledge that it can’t get any worse. And in the end, walking through a graveyard, all of those who dragged her down behind her, walking into the future with her best friend beside her, it’s clear it can only get better. Especially in that knee-length tweed.