Isabelle Huppert has never shied away from contradictory, worrying characters – yet two films in which she plays ostensible “victims” have much to say about the subversion of the rape-revenge genre. Hannah Holway explores The Piano Teacher and Elle to get to the root of her radical understanding of womanhood.
Though the rape-revenge narrative is ubiquitous across genres and decades, narratives challenging the way that survivors of sexual violence should act are relatively new. But in Michael Haneke’s 2001 The Piano Teacher and later, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in 2016, Isabelle Huppert offered two radical portrayals of female victimhood. Depicting women who convey an unconventional response to both desire and trauma, Huppert’s characters moved beyond two-dimensional depictions of victims and survivors on-screen.
Still the only film by Austrian filmmaker Haneke to centre a woman protagonist, The Piano Teacher follows Huppert’s sexually repressed Erika as she begins a relationship with her piano student Walter. Living and sharing a bed with her overbearing mother, Erika is unable to act out her sexual desires, ranging from voyeurism to sadomasochism. She visits private rooms at adult film stores and watches a couple have sex in a car, before mutilating herself in the bath. When Walter expresses admiration for Erika’s musical talent and suggests they begin a relationship, she humiliates him, repeatedly rejecting his affection and then insisting on having sex with him in public. In the majority of Erika’s meetings with Walter, she is in control – she asserts her sexual agency without shame, giving Walter a letter detailing the submissive acts she wants him to do to her, to his disgust and anger.
Haneke has previously explained his intentions to ‘rape’ the viewer into critical spectatorship – particularly worrying when considering those of his films which feature scenes of sexual violence. Aligning with Haneke’s purported desire to manipulate the spectator in this way, Walter and Erika’s bodies are always partly shielded; the visual spectacle of sex is never shown in the way we might expect, left to piece together parts of the scene from what we can and cannot see in front of us.
When Walter beats and sexually assaults Erika, the viewer is placed alongside Erika to sympathise with her, omitting gratuitous nudity while staying with her traumatised expression, as she processes what’s happening. In recent rape-revenge films which subvert the established narrative tendencies of the genre, such as Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale, scenes of sexual violence are also focused on the victims, their facial expressions conveying their trauma, rather than unnecessary shots of undressed bodies – a far cry from the sexualised images of violence in films from the canon such as I Spit on Your Grave. Similarly, in Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 thriller Revenge, graphic violence is replaced with a long, uncomfortable conversation between aspiring actress Jen and her rapist Stan, as he refuses to accept her lack of interest in him. Like Fargeat, Haneke denies the audience the spectacle of assault: still, when nudity and sexual violence are shown for the first time, it’s shocking and upsetting.
But the notion of “raping” a viewer into critically engaging with violence still relies on the assumption that sexual assault is a spectacle, in the sense that it’s something we’re not used to seeing. Alongside the fact that it still features prominently in cinema (Unconsenting Media finds that of the 4,979 films in their database, 12 show a rape on-screen, while 29 see sexual assault or rape discussed or implied), for marginalised genders living with the constant threat of sexual violence, seeing this play out may not be all that shocking.
In Elle, Huppert’s aloof protagonist Michèle approaches what’s happened to her with a sense of detachment. After a masked stranger breaks into her home and rapes her, she calmly takes a bath, cleans her house and goes to work the next day. When she finally tells her friends and ex-husband, she casually states, “I guess I was raped”, to their horror. With only 1.5 of rape cases in the UK resulting in a charge, and 15 of sexual assault victims reporting it, Michèle’s reaction and her refusal to report reflects the reality of many survivors; rather than familiar trauma responses – shock, anger or a desire for revenge – Michèle’s indifference remains a valid and lesser-portrayed reaction to sexual violence.
As Michèle tries to recover from the attack, determined to find out who the perpetrator is, she also faces misogyny at her job as the CEO of a video game company, has an affair with her best friend’s husband, and navigates complicated relationships with her son, ex-husband, and parents. Unlike women whose lives are only framed in relation to their assault in many films – an event which often, like in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from 2011, sees a previously shy woman become a merciless, avenging vigilante after being raped – Michèle’s assault is only one part of her story. For survivors in more modern rape-revenge narratives, the process of healing is more complicated; in Revenge Jen is haunted by hallucinations about her attackers as she stalks them through the desert.
And in Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking 2020 limited series I May Destroy You, Coel’s Arabella comes to terms with the nuances of consent and coercion in her and her friends’ lives, whilst fantasising about getting revenge on the man who assaulted her. While these narratives interrogate different paths of survival for these women, Michèle rejects the label of victimhood altogether, so her assault does not become a transformative event within the film. Rather, it's unsurprising, even mundane.
Still, both Elle and The Piano Teacher veer into dangerous territory when exploring scenarios in which consent is framed as ambiguous. In The Piano Teacher, despite Erika telling Walter to stop, he repeatedly quotes from her letter as he assaults her. He tells her, “You have to admit, you’re partly responsible”. Walter believes this because Erika previously asked him to hurt her, failing to understand that his violent behaviour towards her is not what she wanted or ever asked for. Erika previously enjoyed her desires without shame or hesitation, refusing to be embarrassed when men at a video store judged her for being there. But now her desires are implied to have triggered her assault. Walter even chides her for rejecting his initial advances, shifting the blame away from himself.
It’s a worrying message, especially when considering Haneke’s comments; Erika expresses unconventional desires, and is ultimately punished for it. In Elle, Michèle begins a complicated relationship with her rapist after realising that the man is Patrick, her married neighbour. The two engage in rape fantasies; Michèle seemingly consents, hinting that she wants Patrick to follow her into her house, though he appears to believe that these encounters are still nonconsensual. When Michèle’s son kills Patrick after witnessing one of these encounters, Patrick’s wife thanks Michèle for “satisfying Patrick’s needs”.
In both films, fantasy and rape are entangled. However, conflating Michèle’s and Erika’s desires with disturbing instances of sexual violence complicates the idea of these films as subversive entries in the canon. Discussing Erika and Michèle, Huppert explains they “lead you on a journey through the female psyche with desire and love - they’re softened by sexuality”. The idea of these women allowing the audience into their psyche, before and after their assaults, complicates the notion of Haneke and Verhoeven taking a victim-blaming angle.
Huppert’s penchant for complex, morally ambiguous characters – from an incestuous mother in Ma Mère to a psychopath in Greta – results in performances diverging from the women often played onscreen, and often specifically in women’s stories as told by men. Both Erika’s and Michèle’s relationships with victimhood are uncomfortable, unusual. In Elle, a video game designer at Michèle’s company asks a group of male test subjects, “what do you feel now? Anger or fear?” This question encapsulates the binaries of victimhood so often seen in rape-revenge narratives, denying their characters the space to live their life outside of what’s happened to them. More than broken women or cold-hearted avengers, Huppert’s transgressive victims offer a more complex vision of womanhood.
Hannah Holway (@HolwayHannah) is a Film Studies graduate and film writer from London. She loves women in horror, coming-of-age films and Black Mirror, and can be found writing about these and other things at Flip Screen, Talk Film Society, Hero and more.