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TIFF 2016: 2 frequently infuriating films reflect our shifting conversation around rape and sexual assault

Elle and Una want to be about how women deal with rape. But they’re both made by men.

Rooney Mara plays a statutory-rape survivor in Benedict Andrews’ Una.
Rooney Mara plays a statutory-rape survivor in Benedict Andrews’ Una.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the ones he sees. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.

Early in Una, the new film adaptation of the stage play Blackbird, there’s a single moment that expresses everything the film is trying to say so much better than the roughly 90 minutes of movie that follow it.

A girl, barely in her teens, saunters over to her neighbor’s house to retrieve something he borrowed from her dad. The tone of their exchange is slightly flirtatious — not enough to officially arouse suspicion, but enough to creep you out and hint at what’s coming.

And then, with a terrific match cut, the film reveals who the girl grows up to be: Rooney Mara, standing alone in a club, lights and music throbbing around her. She seems to be outside of herself, cast adrift. She then goes and has anonymous sex with a stranger in a bathroom. None of these things, in and of itself, is bad, but if you’ve seen enough movies, you know what it’s meant to imply: This woman is dealing with some dark shit.

But Una, directed by Benedict Andrews, is not as surefooted around the subjects of rape and sexual assault as it probably wants to be, and it makes a weird pairing with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, another film about a woman trying to figure out how to psychologically process her rape.

Neither film is from the US, and neither film has anything to do with, say, our current discussion of campus sexual assault.

But both are accidentally timely all the same, zeroing in on how ideas of “consent” can seem hazy in practice, and how little we understand our own emotions when it comes to games of sex and power.

Both films are frequently infuriating, and Elle, in particular, seems designed to piss off everybody who watches it at least once. And yet both films seem accidentally keyed into these conversations in ways movies — with their long production schedules — sometimes aren’t.

Both films have their problems, which are at some level traceable to another shared trait: They’re both written and directed by men, and based on works written by men, despite having female protagonists.

Elle is the better of the two films. It’s also intent on provoking you.

If I were running the publicity campaign for Elle, I would be quietly collecting a list of times the film is referred to as “problematic,” and then put that smack dab in the middle of the poster. Elle is such a brazen repudiation of think piece culture, and its desire to boil everything down to a series of political talking points, that it could feel downright risible in other hands.

Fortunately, the film is directed by Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch director (who made the film in France with a French cast) who’s made a career out of understanding that the role of a provocateur isn’t to needlessly piss you off, but to push just far enough to make you sharpen your own arguments against him. (He was pushing hot buttons like a mad genius even in his Hollywood blockbusters, Starship Troopers and Robocop.)

Isabelle Huppert as Michele in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
Isabelle Huppert as Michele in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
Image via TIFF

In Elle, Verhoeven follows a woman named Michele (played by Isabelle Huppert) as she attempts to figure out how to deal with a brutal, seemingly random rape that occurs when a man in a ski mask breaks into her house in the very first scene. But rather than calling the cops or telling a friend, she cleans up herself and her apartment, gently chides her cat for not clawing her attacker, and goes on with her life. And then the film gets weird. (Yes, I used the word “then.”)

I don’t want to spoil Elle beyond that, because so much of what makes the movie work is how it keeps finding new, unexpected corners of its main character’s psychology. But it definitely wants you to be thinking about why she seems so blasé about being raped.

Does she not go to the cops because she doesn’t think they’ll take a woman seriously? Is she blasé because she thinks of such dangers as low-level background radiation in any woman’s life? Did she secretly enjoy herself? The film suggests all of these things — and about four or five others — and it doesn’t mind suggesting that all of them can be true simultaneously, or that none of them might be true. People are complicated, and what’s true for Michele won’t be true for everyone. (I told you this movie would piss you off.)

Suffice to say that Elle is interested in much more about Michele — and how she got to be so seemingly put together on the outside but so messy on the inside. And the film wouldn’t work without Huppert in that role. Michele is a gigantic pile of psychological loose ends she’s never bothered to tie up. She seems to deeply bury her reaction to the rape because that’s how she’s dealt with a lifetime of bad things happening to her.

But Verhoeven and Huppert expertly capture the way sexual assault never really leaves a person’s life. Michele has flashes of the attack at inconvenient moments, and she needs a second to recompose herself every time. And as it becomes clear her rapist is stalking her, it gets harder and harder for her to compartmentalize.

I’m not sure Elle completely adds up — it probably has two or three too many plots, and Verhoeven’s script leans too heavily on provocation — but I appreciated how epic its scope was for a film that is, ultimately, about a few weeks in the life of a middle-aged woman.

What’s best about Elle is how misanthropic it is. At first, it seems like Verhoeven is suggesting that for women to have truly fulfilling lives, all men must die. But the film also takes a pretty dim view of every woman who’s not Michele or her best friend. It’s pinned to its protagonist’s point of view — and she pretty much hates everybody, herself most of all.

Una is much harder to take, but might have a more powerful message

Meanwhile, there’s the aforementioned Rooney Mara–starring Una, which is a less impressive film in a lot of ways — and inadvertently suggests, at times, some pretty horrifying things. But Una is better at showing how assault and trauma become maelstroms nobody can escape.

The film’s main action occurs in the present day, when Una (Mara) finds her old neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), the man who spent three months raping her when she was 13. She was convinced they were in love. Hell, he was too. And for 90 minutes or so, Una tries to convince you such a thing might have been possible.

Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn star in Una.
Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn star in Una.
Image via TIFF

Those who’ve seen productions of David Harrower’s play Blackbird will know there are several other shoes to drop throughout the film. But at its heart, the story is about two people who have no business being in a room together getting into a room together and trying to persuade each other of their very different views of what happened between them. It’s a rough sit — it prompted by far the most walkouts of the films I’ve seen at TIFF — and it makes a couple of key errors.

The less substantial one is that it wraps a workplace subplot around Ray (now going by Peter), where people are trying to track him down for something he did at work. It has the probably unintentional effect of taking a story that should be about Una — her name’s in the title, and she’s the one actually taking action to put her demons to rest — and making it about Ray.

But the far more troubling error is that Una depicts, in several flashbacks, what happened when Una was 13. To its credit, Una knows her statutory rape was horrifying; less to its credit, it can’t figure out a way to visually reflect that horror. Thus, the flashbacks have a strange romantic, erotic charge that really shouldn’t be there.

Director Benedict Andrews shoots nearly all of these scenes like they’re part of some soft romantic drama, because to push too much further even in suggestion would repulse audiences. The flashbacks, then, constantly risk making the disturbing suggestion that adult men and teenage girls can be healthy romantic partners.

Now, I don’t think Andrews or Harrower (who wrote Una based on his play) actually believe that — in fact, the end of the film pretty conclusively proves they don’t — but Una really wants to make you interrogate some of your deeply held beliefs about the subject matter. And that’s going to be tough to stomach for just about anyone.

And that brings me to what’s interesting about both of these films: No matter how much they condemn men who sexually assault women, they both want you to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for rapists.

Both movies ultimately reflect their origins — as being written and directed by men

It can be easy to forget, but in the US we’ve undergone a real sea change in how we define rape. For many years, it was simply what happens to Michele in Elle — a stranger brutally assaulting a woman sexually (usually under threat of physical harm). Date rape, which today is generally accepted as sexual assault, is a relatively recent idea, and concepts like “enthusiastic consent” are even newer.

This evolution of how we define and talk about rape has been a considerable good for society. The more that people respect each other’s sexual autonomy, the better. But it’s also had the net effect of redefining a lot of situations as rape — and a lot of people, mostly men, as rapists.

One of the reasons there has been such angry pushback to these ideas is that to accept them is to accept that rape isn’t a rare, vicious, violent crime; it’s a common one, and it’s probably been committed by someone you know, even if that person didn’t “mean to.”

Both Elle and Una regard crimes that are clear-cut violations of the law and have been for ages. Michele is assaulted by a stranger; Una is raped as a child. These sorts of crimes viscerally offend us. But by asking us to contemplate life through a rapist’s eyes, even just a little bit, both films also wade into the tricky waters outlined above.

Sure, it’s easy to condemn a man who sleeps with a 13-year-old. But what about your best friend who sleeps with someone who was passed out? How do you deal with the empathy you might feel for him? By pushing to extremes, both films help us better understand the rapidly shifting middle.

And yet, all the same, neither film can entirely escape the fact that it was written and directed by a man. They might feature women as protagonists, but the thing both films want you to think about is ultimately something that has nothing to do with those women: the thought of being a rapist who is understood, yes, but also absolved, and maybe even forgiven.

Both Elle and Una will be out later in the year. Neither has an exact release date yet.

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