Elle, 2016, directed by Paul Verhoeven. Streamed from Netflix [Spoilers and graphic description and image].
Event/ually Lacking: Thoughtz on “Elle”…
I want what I cannot have – or – I want what I am not permitted to have – or – what I want is what is lacking – or – what is lacking is what I want.
If darkness is where light is not, then the black screen is a good way to visualise lack. In the first moments of Elle, we hear sounds without the action they permeate from. There is a crash, groaning and panting emitting from “behind” a black screen, an opaque frame of darkness as if a curtain yet to be opened. When the opening shot is revealed, we see a cat looking at action – an (anthropomorphised) banality gathering in its eyes before it blinks and moves on. We then cut to the “event” – the moment that punctuates all that comes after it and punctures our looking. What is this darkness that fills up affect, that must be blocked out yet compulsively returned to?
This initial moment of action describes areas of the narrative trauma through the play of darkness encapsulated in the mise-en-scene. The frame is blocked in such a way that the screen appears split: action illuminated on the left hand side whilst the right hand side remains in shadows. Like hands pressed together, the split tableaux is both opposite and the same. Here lies a woman, smashed crockery around her head as a black figure holds her down like the reverse of a shadow – dominant instead of always underfoot. And though the signs of a ruptured domestic space signify the distress of the narrative situation, and the woman’s passivity beneath this masked and aggressive body signals that this is a cruel, non-consensual sex act, perhaps it is this right side of darkness that more succinctly says: trauma. For trauma, as a moment of the Real, is beyond and resistant to coherent articulation, both too much and too lacking, which we must erase from our memories in order to speak and blink at the world again.
This right side of darkness – an articulation of lack – can work to inform us about the “lack” on the left hand side. When both aspects of this frame are considered together, we can understand that the representation of the traumatic event is both representational and abstracted. The concept of “lacking” thus occupies space in the narrative (left hand side) and the formal aesthetics of the mise-en-scene (left hand side with and in relation to the right hand side). Throughout the film, this traumatic space also becomes and is a space for and of desire as Elle works to intertwine these two enigmatic aspects of the psyche until they overlap in a prism of lack.
As Antony Willden expresses in System and Structure: “the Other is not a person, but a principle” and “[According to Lacan,] the Other … is the only place from which it is possible to say “I am who I am”.” Perhaps this is the notion that best allows me to understand what it is I receive from Elle as a theoretical text.
Elle’s narrative structure unwinds as a series of threads of understanding that unfurl simultaneously. The rape that occurs at the beginning of the film becomes the central narrative drive as we watch Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) search to uncover her attacker’s identity. However, in Michèle’s attempt to discover such information, as spectators we also learn about Michèle’s identity. Thus, Michèle’s search for the other at the centre of the traumatic event comes to underpin a search into the self. In this sense, identity of the central character becomes woven into the identity of enacted trauma. Furthermore, we later discover that Michèle’s “identity”, the “who-she-is-as-others-see-her-identity” (I suppose we could argue, “the-way-in-which-she-is-Othered-identity”) is written through a traumatic childhood. As Michèle’s past is realised in the narrative, it is revealed that her jailed father was a serial killer. A press photograph which was widely circulated from the night of his crime sees her half naked, covered in ash: “a young girl made into a psychopath” (as Michèle describes herself) by the click of a camera shutter.
With the unfolding of such information in overlapping revelations, trauma and desire begin to become pleated into one another and articulated as pleats upon Michèle’s corporeal. A dramatic shift in tensions occurs at the clearest moment of transformation (or revelation) from the initial traumatic event (the rape) into a subject of desire. Michèle desires and masturbates over her neighbour Patrick, only to later discovering is it he who raped her. These two paradigms – the object of desire and the subject of terror and trauma – conflate poignantly in a scene set in Patrick’s basement, during which his attack becomes an act she invites. “Do it.” Michèle says, as Patrick pulls back to hit her – to which he freezes. “No. That’s not how this works for me”. And of course it is not. Desire here is bluntly articulated as that which one cannot have. Patrick’s desire can be clearly understood as only existing through the site of lack, that is: he only desires Michèle at the point she does not desire him.
Patrick’s motivations to rape Michele are left fairly ambiguous, but direct in how they relate to a drive. After discovering her rapist’s identity, Michèle probes: “Why did you do it?”. Patrick’s reply: “It was necessary.” This explanation chimes not only with a libidinal drive that overrides a civilised ego, but also makes us think that this crime has resonance with a notion of “revenge” upon Michèle because of her father’s criminal actions of the past. Patrick’s motivations are never unpacked beyond this exchange and the clear erotic pleasure he temporarily secures during the violating act.
Thus, instead of trying to tease out the who and why of Patrick, it is Michèle’s relationship to trauma and desire that underpin the film’s narrative as well as visual and theoretical drive. When her trauma transforms into her desire we can locate her as masochistic, that is, as finding pleasure in a self-hating moment. This moment of desirable self-hate emerges in tune with the narrative revelations about Michèle’s traumatic past, a past that could lead us to better understand her motives for her desire that is somewhat complicit with Patrick’s. The chronological scene structure places Michele masturbating over Patrick before the revelation that it is he who raped her. This narrative structure can allow an examination of Michèle’s sado-masochistic desire as one that unconsciously manifests itself – a desire that finds itself in libidinal action before the web of dynamics is fully realised.
Maybe we can then map Michèle’s desire as following a path that might be construed as: Others hate me for what I am perceived to have done and believe >> other’s hate makes me self-hate as I understand myself through what I imagine others believe me to be >> self-hate makes me find hate desirable >> I desire to be punished. And for Patrick maybe we could phrase his desire as: I desire to punish the subject which I perceive others to hate >> when my act of punishing in welcomed, it is no longer punishing and thus, no longer desirable to me >> I only desire what I am not permitted to take/have.
Of course, the film does not simply track the (dis)function of desire. Within the wider character dynamics I think we can argue that Michèle’s mother, son and father also play significant roles in how trauma and desire manifest in regards, particularly, to the topic of denial (though I’m going to cut this prose short before it turns into an even longer tangent). Too, it is surely significant that Patrick is Michèle’s neighbour – leading me to think about how “love thy neighbour as thy would thyself” is a ridiculous concept when we consider how many people are self-hating. Lacan and Zizek have both interrogated this concept of neighbourly love, and this could surely could be a whole other path of enquiry into Elle’s relational construction.