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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Philippe Djian

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To purchase Elle

Title: Elle
Author: Philippe Djian
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 192 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Elle - US
Elle - UK
Elle - Canada
"Oh..." - Canada
"Oh..." - France
Oh... - Deutschland
"Oh..." - Italia
DVD: Elle - US
Elle - UK
  • French title: "Oh..."
  • Translated by Michael Katims
  • Elle was made into a film in 2016, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Isabelle Huppert

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Our Assessment:

B : striking, strong voice; dark tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 12/9/2012 François Busnel
Publishers Weekly . 10/4/2017 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Philippe Djian est un maître du suspense. Mais au-delà de l'histoire, au-delà du style, il y a l'ambition : Djian, l'un des meilleurs écrivains français, pourrait se contenter de publier à l'infini des bouquins qui se ressemblent. Non. Il se réinvente chaque fois. Et brise au passage quelques tabous." - François Busnel, L'Express

  • "(U)nsparing and fiercely intelligent. (...) Djian’s bold novel (...) is slight but packs a powerful punch." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Elle is narrated by Michèle, a woman nearing fifty who runs a successful film production company with her best friend, Anna. Beyond her professional success, and the work she can lose herself in, reading screenplays, her life is a mess.
       The first interactions with those closest to her that she describes -- all in the first seven pages of the book -- give some idea of her relationships: her ex-husband Richard tells her to; "go fuck herself", her son, Vincent, tells her: "I don't give a shit what you think", and her mother tells her: "You're just a little bitch". But hard and hardened Michèle barely blinks; she can handle her family -- indeed, she's the one they turn to. Her seventy-five-year-old mother still has nothing better to do than pick up men -- and Michèle pays the rent for her apartment -- while son Vincent is a failure who just landed a job at McDonald's (which, no surprise, he can't hold onto for long), needs his mother to be a guarantor on his new lease (and of course she soon has to take over the payments), and is shacking up with his near-term pregnant girlfriend, Josie (and, no, the kid isn't his). (As to her marriage with Richard, that fell apart because the screenplays he insisted on writing just weren't very good and he couldn't take the truth from her.) At least friend and business partner Anna is a stable presence and someone Michèle can depend on -- but behind her back Michèle has long been having an affair with Anna's husband, Robert .....
       Michèle's account begins in December. She doesn't come right on and reveal it directly, but she's dealing with the aftereffects of an attack -- a rape. She's angry at herself, for not having taken all the proper precautions: "I'm so ashamed. I'm so furious now. Furious at myself." Oddly, she did not call the police; indeed, she's slow to share the news with anyone. The first one she tells, a few day later, is Richard -- calling it her: "appalling misadventure" rather than the intimate violation that it was.
       Michèle has a lot on her plate and on her mind. From the demands of work in this tough economic climate to her various needy relatives, she's juggling a lot. That the rapist reaches out to her again, almost mocking her, is deeply unsettling -- but Michèle also has other things to worry about and she doesn't let herself (or can't) get entirely preoccupied by this. (She still doesn't notify the authorities, either -- a not entirely satisfactorily explained course of inaction, though suggestive of her state of mind, as the story then unfolds in a way that suggests why she might not have wanted to involve them.)
       One of the things she is arguing with her mother about as the Christmas season approaches is her father's wish to hear from her -- but that's where Michèle draws the line. Her long-incarcerated father is the notorious "Monster of the Aquitane", a mass (really mass) murderer who went on his rampage and was arrested when Michèle was in her mid-teens. Tainted by association, the family's life was hell for a long time -- and it was only Richard that pulled her out of it.
       Unsurprisingly, it marked her -- and she continues to deal with:

     That fear of being unmasked, that we might be recognized and forced to face all those deaths, all that injustice, all that insanity. Thirty years later that fear is still just as tenacious, just as penetrating.
       Her assailant was literally masked, and part of Michèle can relate to him and his urges; the rapist becomes a sort of foil for her, as she gets entangled in his games. (He, too, turns out to be a very damaged soul.)
       This is a novel of poor relationships: Richard and Michèle have split (and it doesn't work out for him with his new girlfriend either), Robert is cheating on Anna (with Michèle), Josie kicks Victor out of their apartment (the one Michèle is paying for), Michèle's mother is in an entirely inappropriate relationship, seeing a much younger man (another relationship that gets cut short -- and he soon takes up with another woman), and even the neighbor's devout wife leaves her husband behind as she goes on her religious pilgrimage. Parent-child relationships aren't much happier -- though at least they are more secure, Michèle supportive of both her mother and son, regardless of how little respect she has for either -- while they also go beyond the purely biological: Vincent seems to sincerely be devoted to the baby that isn't his, while he and his godmother Anna also have a very close relationship (born out of the tragedy that brought Anna and Michèle together in the first place, at Vincent's birth).
       Violence flares up repeatedly here, as tragedy: there are several deaths, the brunt of which Michèle must bear. She proves to be a resilient and strong character -- not necessarily likeable or good, but strong. She doesn't necessarily treat her loved ones well, but she's matter of fact about it, and ultimately always supportive. So, for example, he had and has her issues with Vincent -- a truly pathetic young man -- but loves him and is always there for him (indeed, she is overindulgent at times -- especially in trying to bribe Josie). She feels some guilt about sleeping with her best friend's husband -- and even, finally puts a stop to the affair -- but she's matter of fact about it; she even ultimately tells Anna, but it's less confession that a statement of fact, and she both accepts Anna's reaction and is willing to wait for her to get over it, with little more than a shrug.
       Early on, she recalls the rape, and says:
I have no memory of the purely sexual part of the assault. I was living with so much tension == a tension that was in fact actual fact the sum of all the tensions I had endured up until that moment, in trying to escape the pack of howling beasts my father had unleashed -- I must have had a mental disconnect, recording nothing of the actual act. So I can't say anything about it. I can't know how my body reacted. And I can't know what to do with this suffocating rage and fury.
       Djian makes it a bit easy on himself here, disassociating the act from its consequences -- if she doesn't remember the actual violation, the 'purely sexual part' it's almost like that didn't happen. The act -- or the extension of the act (it gets more complicated, in not being an entirely isolated event) -- becomes cathartic, a difficult balancing act Djian doesn't entirely manage but certainly makes for an interesting (and intriguingly unsettling) character-portrait.
       Djian heaps a lot on poor Michèle, beginning with her mom and dad from hell (very different hells, but still ...) and their respective fates here. But he gives Michèle a strong voice, and the forceful character, independent and empowered, despite her wounds, is impressive , and this makes for a compelling psychological tale (even if not all of it is psychologically entirely convincing). Michèle comes across as raw and penetratingly honest, about both herself and the others, and her attitude is certainly engaging. Elle veers dangerously close to melodrama at points, and Djian juggles so much that parts of the story a far too thin (and others over the top), but it's still an absorbing and impressively disturbing read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 July 2017

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Elle: Reviews: Elle - the film: Philippe Djian: Other books by Philippe Djian under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Bestselling French author Philippe Djian was born in 1949.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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