Elle by Philippe Djian

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

  1. May 14, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Fascinating stuff, Emma. I saw the film last October at the London Film Festival and was very intrigued by it. It’s certainly a provocative watch. Tonally, it shifts around quite dramatically going from the shock and awe of the sexual assault scenes to the lightness and humour of a comedy about family.

    “Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.” Yes, that’s just how Isabelle Huppert plays her in the film – she constantly challenges the viewer’s preconceptions and expectations.

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    • May 14, 2017 at 10:46 am

      Given the tone and the topic of the book, it must be provocative.
      How did you feel about Michèle?

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      • May 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm

        Cool, controlled, emotionally detached. I found her quite difficult to read, but I guess that’s what the director was aiming for.

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        • May 14, 2017 at 9:24 pm

          I suppose it’s easier in the book. I think you’d like it. (less than 250 pages, it’s worth a try)

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  2. May 14, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    I have this one on hand and will be getting to it soon. I watched the film a few weeks ago, and of course, Huppert gave an outstanding performance. I thought Michèle was a phenomenal character–can’t give away too much here. I disliked the ending of the film so I’m hoping that it’s handled a bit better in the book.

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    • May 14, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      I’m looking forward to reading your review. It’s really a book I’d recommend you.

      Like

  3. May 15, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Sounds well worth a look. The film has certainly caused a stir (haven’t seen it – would like to). I know of Dijan but have never read his stuff, and hadn’t linked him to the movie of this. Interesting to know more, thanks Emma.

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    • May 15, 2017 at 8:58 pm

      I think you’d like this one. I also recommend Consequences. (Great film with Mathieu Amalric too)

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  4. May 15, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Phillipe Djian is one of OH fave authors so I will have to seek this out for him ….I’ve only read 37.2 le matin . It’s his birthday coming up so this is a great recommendation….Merci !!

    Like

    • May 15, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      “Oh…” for OH, what a perfect gift! Lucky him, there’s almost always a new Djian at this time of year. I know because he’s one of my Mom’s favorite writer and he conveniently releases new books around Mother’s Day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. May 16, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    It does sound challenging, which is a good thing by and large. I have Consequences though (thanks to your previous review – I’d forgotten but I must have picked it up when it subsequently came out in English translation). I should read that first and if I take to it (which I expect to) then maybe this.

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    • May 16, 2017 at 9:30 pm

      Consequences was good but this one’s even better. It’s also the first time he has a female narrator. All his books have a male first-person narrative.

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  6. May 18, 2017 at 11:26 am

    This sounds very good.

    I like the passages that you quoted especially the first one. “Cold”, “detached” and “out of body experience” seem like very good descriptors for it.

    Unlikable characters can be so appealing in literature. This books seems to be good example of this phenomena.

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    • May 18, 2017 at 9:10 pm

      It’s one of his best, IMO. Michèle is a disturbing character because she doesn’t fit with clichés about women. It makes her interesting.
      It’s a short book and it’s now available in English.

      Like

  1. May 27, 2017 at 11:45 pm
  2. May 29, 2017 at 7:18 pm

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