Homer B. Pettey
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Elle (2016), rape, and adaptation
in French literature on screen
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While the primary subject of Paul Verhoven’s Elle (2016) remains an examination of rape, the film places rape within a dark satire of contemporary French bourgeois life: the technological usurpation of emotions and sexuality; the uncertain future of a new generation of slacker male children; the shallowness of casual marital infidelity; and even the comically violent frustrations over the lack of parking in Paris. Elle especially addresses rape in contrast to a current culture of unquestioned feminist assumptions. Indeed, Elle provokes feminist paradigms that have foregrounded much of the discussion of gender and sexuality in both literary and film studies. Elle takes the subject of rape and radically alters conventional, popular, and academic assumptions about woman’s agency, undercutting as it critiques the several waves of feminism. In doing so, Elle eschews and at times mocks feminist grand narratives of oppressive patriarchy and pervasive misogyny with their repeated subtext of women trapped within a dominant rape culture. Instead, Elle formulates a satiric counter-narrative that affirms female agency and examines the ambiguities of feminine desire. Elle problematizes feminist polemics against the voyeurism and scopophilia of cinematic portrayals of rape and their reducing of woman to a victim status under the domination of the male gaze. In doing so, Elle does not dismiss feminism outrightly, but rather adapts a new text that does not need to be faithful to that original theoretical text. Based upon Philippe Djian’s novel ‘Oh …’, Elle also calls into question the process of adaptation, which for Elle involves movement not only between literary and cinematic forms, but also among transmedial forms of computers, video games, and messaging systems. The subject of these intertextual forms of adaptation always remains rape and its consequences. These provocations reveal how Elle admirably, if quite disturbingly, plays with conventions of contemporary femininity by taking the emotionally and politically fraught subject of violent sexual assault and rendering it graphically and satirically. Elle, then, serves an outré, contemporary model for the process of adaptation.

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