Isabelle Huppert is the greatest actor in the history of cinema. That is not hyperbole and it’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. Since the early 1970s, Huppert has graced the silver screen treating audiences to rich, textured performances that flew high above her contemporaries in terms of grace, daring, and audacity. Having previously worked with masters Jean Luc-Godard, Hong Sang-Soo, Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, and Michel Cimino, one of Huppert’s latest finds her working with another, Paul Verhoeven. In Elle, the film that won her a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nomination, Huppert stars as Michelle, the ‘victim’ of a brutal rape. Rather than reporting the attack to police, Michelle decides to extract vengeance in her own, uniquely French way. I was graced with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak to the cinema legend about her role, working with Verhoeven, and what she thinks of being the bravest actress on screen.
Scene Creek: Do you need to connect with a character to play her? If so, how did you connect with Michelle?
Isabelle Huppert: I would say yes and no. No, in the sense that this character has nothing to do with me. I’m not a woman of power like she is. I don’t run a video game company. I don’t have to face the same kind of aggression that she does. Yes, also, because I think that I represent her way of being cool to what happens to her. She’s a lot more fearless than I am, personally, I would never live in a big house like this in a suburb of Paris. Especially after what happened to her. She’s completely fearless and she’s not afraid. Yes in the way that she doesn’t want to be a victim and she wants to turn this event into something different, she wants to take control over what happens to her. In that respect, I feel connected to her. It’s always the case with a character when some parts are more telling than others. That’s what makes the whole thing exciting. Some details you make up completely – she’s not afraid and I’m afraid of everything personally – and some other things you connect.
SC: You’ve frequently been described as ‘fearless’ in relation to the roles you take. Paul Verhoeven is a director who that word can certainly apply to as well. What was it like to work with him?
IH: I was always a great admirer of his work. He has such a great ability to disturb you and at the same time make you think. There was always a great deal of irony in his movies. He’s never sentimental, he’s never too psychological, and yet, there is such an intelligence and attempt to understand in his work. He also throws so many bridges between events without ever giving explanations to that. In the end, you have a complete portrait of a woman. You are really able to step into someone’s life and try to understand the bridges between the past and the present and the future because she has this strong relationship with her son. The multiple, almost mosaic-like aspect to the film makes it also quite moving because it says a lot about family ties and what it mean to love your child. Even with the baby who turns out not to be his baby. He’s not his father but still, he loves this child as if it were his own. It also has a lot to say about the exactitude of family ties. I think it’s very complex, very deep. I also love the way, as a director, that he borrows in so many ways. Sometimes you are in a Hitchcock thriller, sometimes you are in a psychological study, and sometimes you are in a comedy. At the end of the day you are in none of those things, but you are in a Paul Verhoeven film.
SC: You have said that you are often attracted to a director over a character. In this film, you have such a richly textured character to play. Was it Verhoeven in this case, or was it the entire package of Michelle and Paul?
IH: It was the entire package. I read the novel first and I immediately thought that it could potentially be a great film because it was very visual and the character was deeply studied. Eventually, the writer Philippe Dijan told me that he always had me in mind as he was writing the novel. That was the exact proof. No wonder I felt immediately connected to the role when I read the novel. Eventually, I spoke to Said Ben Said, the producer, who said that he got the rights to the book and wanted to ask Paul Verhoeven to do the film. There was such an obvious connection between Verhoeven and Dijan also. I would say that Verhoeven is multiply-cultured. He’s Dutch, but he’s also very American. There is also something quite American in Dijan’s book due to the way he set the story in the suburbs. It makes the story quite international. All suburbs in the world sort of look like this. For all those reasons I though that Verhoeven was just the perfect choice. But when you have the role, the script, the dialogue, and on top of everything the director, it makes it all a great film in the end.
SC: Verhoeven said he put a lot of trust in you to guide him because he didn’t want to completely steer this woman’s story.
IH: Yes probably this is true. He told me very very little and he let me take the role wherever I wanted to take it. That might be because of the situation so that at the end you don’t have to measure the male gaze. From the start I thought that it was not a man’s fantasy. The way she’s halfway between the victim and the James Bond-ish avenger. She’s really in an in-between space which I think is very, essentially feminine. She doesn’t borrow the weapon of the man to take revenge like a James Bond girl. She doesn’t want to be a victim. It’s really an exploration of something in between. As an actress, I really felt protected. I never felt like I was being manipulated, I felt like I was in great complicity with my role.
SC: There has been a lot of discussion on how the film blends drama and comedy. There is, of course, the dramatic aspect of Michelle’s attack, but Verhoeven also utilizes an ingeniously Buñuel-esqe deconstruction of the French bourgeoisie. What was your reaction to reading something that plays with such polar opposite genre conventions?
IH: That what makes the prize of it. It’s so funny and so critical. When you are funny you have irony so you become critical. Sometimes gently critical, but there’s definitely a sense of humor. I think Verhoeven had such pleasure doing the Christmas dinner scene. It’s a bit like in Claude Chabrol’s films. You have this humanistic insight into a certain psyche. You show people with their little failures. There are so many things happening around this table. Obviously between my character’s cruelty putting the toothpicks in the food and the neighbor who wants to do the prayer, and ultimately the mother who is going to announce her engagement. It’s so funny. It’s a little world in itself.
SC: Verhoeven has talked about how he originally wanted to make the film in America.
IH: Yeah, he makes no secret of that. I like that. He didn’t want me, he wanted an American movie star, he didn’t get her, so finally he got me.
SC: Well there is a bravery to the French film system that America doesn’t have. Do you feel that’s true?
IH: I don’t know, I’m French. I’m very happy with the few American films I’ve done. I can say that I did the films with great directors, people who were daring in that supposedly not-daring system. I did have the privilege and the opportunity to work with people like Michael Cimino, who was certainly critical to the system, as well all know. Then David O. Russell and Curtis Hanson who did one of the greatest films in my opinion, LA Confidential, then Hal Hartley. I’ve been really lucky because whenever I did movies in America I just followed my line, which was to work with the best people possible. I remain very French in that respect. My criterion of choice is always the director. I’ve only worked with great American directors.
SC: What drives you to do so many films in a given year?
IH: I like acting. It’s something very simple. A: I like acting. B: It’s very easy for me to act. It’s not a problem, I do it easily. Stage work, of course, is more difficult. I’m doing a play called Phaedra now that is very difficult. I have wonderful occasions to work with wonderful people so I don’t see any reason to turn them down.
SC: You’ve worked with so many of the great directors. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with, living or dead, that you like to?
IH: Truffaut, Hitchcock, of course. All the great American directors. Ingmar Bergman, you can go through all of world cinema. And just to say again that I got to work with Michael Cimino, who I had the privilege to work with. He was such an amazing director, top of the list.
Elle is now available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD.