Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Big Little Lies share the common goal of unmasking the omnipresence of misogyny via its horrific manifestations in violence. In both universes, the best protection from violent men is trusting other women.
This is an excerpt of the essay which appears in the ebook Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and The Struggle for Female Agency. Get your copy of the ebook here.
Watching Paul Verhoeven’s critically acclaimed but controversial film Elle and the Jean-Marc-Vallée-directed HBO show Big Little Lies in the same month was trying. I found myself having extremely visceral reactions with both, despite their drastically different approaches to depicting gendered violence and its effects on its victims. In Big Little Lies, the very first instance of violence between housewife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), while almost tame in retrospect, got my heart racing: the soft-spoken Perry suddenly raises his voice and jumps on Celeste, grabbing her arm and seemingly stopping himself from going further. In Elle, a shiver ran down my spine when Michèle (Isabelle Huppert)’s twenty-something son Vincent started screaming at and grabbing his fiancée Josie who was standing at the top of a flight of stairs holding her baby.Watching ELLE and BIG LITTLE LIES in the same month was trying. I had extremely visceral reactions.Click To Tweet
Days after watching the show, I was surprised to find myself still thinking about the impact that such graphic scenes had had on me. Even though I have never suffered that kind of violence myself, these brutal scenes felt uncomfortably close and personal. This is not only because both texts bring to life my worst fears as a woman in a patriarchal society; but also because they deliberately engage with and dismantle the workings of those terrifying situations I have only imagined finding myself in. Both also share the common goal of unmasking the omnipresence of misogyny via its horrific manifestations in violence. In both universes, the best protection from violent men is trusting other women.
In Elle, CEO Michèle, a middle-aged Parisian woman, seeks out her masked rapist’s identity. But instead of exposing him, she regains control by beginning an affair with him, while also reconfiguring to her advantage her relationships with other men in her life. In contrast, Big Little Lies, centred on five housewives in the affluent seaside city of Monterey, California, focuses on the emotional impact of gendered abuse on two women. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) was raped by a stranger and raises alone her 6-year-old son born from the encounter. In parallel, housewife Celeste Wright suffers daily beatings and not-quite-consensual violent sex at the hands of her husband Perry.
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