How the post-feminist heroine handles rape

As Isabelle Huppert wins the Cesar award for her role in <em>Elle</em>, we can do her character, who suffers sexual assault, greater honour by updating the rape discourse with her example on how not to give in to victimhood.

Updated - February 25, 2017 06:15 pm IST

Published - February 25, 2017 05:10 pm IST

For Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert in 'Elle', the worst violation one can suffer is not sufficient grounds to not order dinner five minutes later. | AP

For Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert in 'Elle', the worst violation one can suffer is not sufficient grounds to not order dinner five minutes later. | AP

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Emma Stone will most likely win the Oscar for Best Actress for her terrific performance in La La Land and beat veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert nominated for Paul Verhoeven’s Elle based on Philippe Djian’s book "Oh..." As much I as loved Emma, as much as I was moved to tears with her rendition of Audition in the movie, I can’t help but root for Huppert as Michele to win. In an ideal world, they would have both won. Like they did at the Golden Globes in different categories.

But the Oscars are huge. They can completely turn the spotlight on to the film and the character that the world needs to see.

Because Elle, short for Michele, can potentially change the way the world sees rape and rape victims. More importantly, how rape victims see themselves.

Especially, in a country like India, where a woman’s honour is linked to a body part.

Though Huppert herself said that the film needs to be seen for what it is and hates words like “statement” and “message”, we as a conservative society could really do with some insight from the choices her character Michele makes post-rape.

 

Moments after her rape by a masked assailant, the 60-something grandmother, despite being visibly shaken by the incident, picks up the pieces and decides to order in some dinner.

“And some Hamachi. Two pieces… What is a Holiday Roll?” she enquires on the phone while placing her order. Come on, a girl’s got to eat.

Thus, within the first few minutes of Elle , Paul Verhoeven has altered the rape narrative by almost immediately restoring the victim to a state of everyday normalcy. It’s not easy but it’s possible that at least one woman has chosen to not skip her meal after a terrible incident.

Not that the film treats rape lightly. The assault does have repercussions on her life. Elle is unable to trust anyone. She does get nightmares as she plays back the scene again and again wondering if she could have done something else to hit back. She scolds her cat for just sitting there and watching. She does want her revenge.

Yet, she refuses to let “victim” be her identity for the rest of her life. Because she knows there’s more to her life than a terrible, heinous incident.

Maybe a younger victim would take longer to cope. Of course, it’s easier said and shown on screen than done. Yes, it does take strength and will-power. It does need a support system. It does need an environment of modernity.

 

As Huppert told The Guardian : “Here is what I liked. She is raped and confronted by this violence and she has to be the mother to a fragile son and the daughter of a crazy mother. And an ex-wife, lover, boss. That this woman is defined in so many ways, it makes her a very complete human being. She is not defined only by rape and the rapist. She is new. A post-feminist heroine.”

While the film sparked off endless debates with its controversial twists and turns and some of Michele’s choices that seemed to condone rape (even if momentarily), there is no arguing that ALL the choices — including the ones that are politically-incorrect ones that raised eyebrows — were made by her. By Elle.

That Michele is played by a 63-year-old veteran actress does lend the character a lot of gravitas, grace and maturity. Maybe a younger victim would take longer to cope. Of course, it’s easier said and shown on screen than done. Yes, it does take strength and will-power. It does need a support system. It does need an environment of modernity.

Films have that power to create that progressive environment by starting off debates.

Last week, a Malayalam actor was abducted for two hours and faced sexual assault. She was shaken. They had taken videos to blackmail her. She refused to let them call the shots. She sent the cops behind them. Made them run for their lives.

While the entire film industry stood in solidarity with her, the words still reeked of patriarchy reinforcing the stereotypical ideas of honour.

As superstar Mammootty said during his show of support to her: “A real man is someone who protects a woman. One can go to any extent to protect her honour...”

Suffering sexual assault does not make her a woman of less honour. A sexual assault of any kind is an unpardonable offence calls for punishment given the mental scar and trauma it leaves behind. But the healing of these scars will only come from how we as a society look at sexual assault. We must refuse to let victims feel victimised forever or link a woman’s honour to a reproductive organ. Because there’s so much more to their life than what a nightmarish incident can take away.

Hence, it is time for the media and society to look at the rape discourse through the lens and choices of Elle .

The times are changing, even if slowly.

Some of the most poignant moments in my life have been punctuated with moments of incredible courage. Courage from what I have now fully realised are God's most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!  From a mother picking up pieces of a suddenly derailed life, to bring up two young boys to be the men they are today..to a wife who at the fag end of a 40 hour labour, just as she was being cut open without an anaesthetic, holding my hand and telling me "It's alright Prithvi"..I have repeatedly been dumbfounded in realising how much of a lesser being I am in the company of the women in my life.  And today..as my dear friend walks in to the sets to kick start the shooting of her new film "ADAM", I once again bear witness to an extraordinary moment of courage from an extraordinary woman in my life! Today..she makes a statement..a statement that will echo through time, space and gender..that no one or no incident has control over your life but YOU! A statement that will now be part of counselling sessions and pep talks around the world. A statement that you my friend..are making in a million unheard voices! And to those voices I apologise..for at an age and time when I wasn't wise enough..I have been part of films that celebrated misogyny..I have mouthed lines that vilified regard for your self respect and I have taken a bow to the claps that ensued. NEVER AGAIN..never again will I let disrespect for women be celebrated in my movies! Yes..I'm an actor and this is my craft! I will whole heartedly trudge the grey and black with characters that possess unhinged moral compasses...but I will never let these men be glorified or their actions justified on screen. Once again..ladies and gentlemen..stand up and applaud for her! Behind the gutsy spunk, there is a vulnerable celebrity who knew well enough what this decision of hers would mean to a life under constant scrutiny. But she also knew..that she had to see it through...for that would set an example..light a torch that will show a path for many to follow!Today she makes a statement.. A statement of extraordinary courage! Fanboy for life...dear friend..fanboy for life! Love always, Prithvi.

Posted by Prithviraj Sukumaran on  Friday, 24 February 2017
 

We have our own post-feminist heroine in the actor who faced assault. She returned to work in a week. Her co-star swore to never do another role that promotes misogyny.

This morning, Huppert won a Cesar (considered the French Oscar) for Elle .

Whether or not she wins an Oscar, we must honour what the post-feminist heroine stands for. And many others like her in real life.

The rape discourse in our society can do with some empowerment.

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