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'Elle' | Sony Pictures Classics
'Elle' | Sony Pictures Classics

'Elle' Star Isabelle Huppert and the Lure of Female Perversion

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 10 November 2016
Culture Trip interviewed the French star about working with Paul Verhoeven on Elle – which, given its inflammatory premise, proved a collaboration made in Weird Feminist Movie Heaven.

Huppert has naturally played her share of “normals” in her prolific 45-year career. There’s a measure of comfort to be had, however, in watching her illuminate the life of a dedicated neurotic.

As became obvious when Huppert played the needy and needling sexual masochist Erika in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), her gift for empathizing with people who live in endless night or endless perversion is unequaled in modern movies.

When Huppert flows, with apparent effortlessness, into characters who are damaged, traumatized, twisted, or merely sinful – whether murderesses, incestuous mothers, a tart, or a lusting lesbian abbess – she invariably reminds us a little or a lot of ourselves, women and men alike.

‘Elle’
‘Elle’ | © Sony Pictures Classics

So it is with Michèle, the daughter of a serial killer played by Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which opens this Friday. Though implicated as a child in her father’s depredations, Michèle has lived a relatively conventional middle-class life and achieved success as the CEO of a company that designs (admittedly ultra-violent) video games.

When a masked man breaks into her apartment one evening and rapes her, however, her response is far from bourgeois: Why not rape him back? Don’t expect to find moral absolutes in Verhoeven’s film or Huppert’s beguilingly mercurial performance.

She plays a different kind of survivor in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (opening December 2). Huppert’s left-wing philosophy professor Nathalie is a fireball who instead of burning out when her husband dumps her gains more and more momentum. Both Nathalie and Elle have cats to go with their witchcraft.

Having completed a short run in Phaedra(s) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in mid-September, Huppert, 63, was one of the stars of the recent New York Film Festival, where Elle and Things to Come had their American premieres. We talked one Sunday afternoon during the festival.

Culture Trip: Before we talk about your new films, I’m curious to know if the reasons you choose certain roles has changed over the years.

Isabelle Huppert: No, it’s always the same. I’m driven by the perspective of working with certain directors. Then, of course, comes the script, then the role. It’s an ensemble of different reasons, but the director is the most important. Of course, when it’s a first-time director, you come at it with different motivations because it’s more of a jump into the unknown.

‘The Lacemaker’
‘The Lacemaker’ | © New Yorker Films

CT: I’ve wondered if investigating specific emotions appeals to you. For example, Pomme in The Lacemaker [1977] is as broken as Erika in The Piano Teacher. Do you remember what spoke to you about Pomme all those years ago?

IS: My mother read the book [Pascal Lainé’s La Dentellière], or maybe she heard about it, and she said, “You have to read it – I’m sure it’s for you.” It was really troubling because there was an exact description of me on the first page. It really does say “a young girl with round cheeks and freckles and green eyes.” It was like the writer was describing me, so it felt the role in the film was meant for me. And it was so moving and dramatic and deep. To have that role at such an early stage of my path as an actress was so rewarding, and the movie was successful wherever it was shown.

CT: Would you connect Pomme with Nathalie in Things to Come? Pomme is abandoned by her lover and ends up in an institution, and Nathalie’s husband leaves her for another woman…

IS: Luckily [in Things to Come], I don’t end up in a psychiatric hospital thinking that there is no resolution for a woman when she is left by a man. Things have changed. That’s for sure! [laughs]

‘Things to Come’
‘Things to Come’ | © Sundance Selects

CT: Both Michèle and Nathalie refuse to be victims, whatever life throws at them.

IH: That’s true. They might have been stuck in predictable patterns, but they want to get away from that right away. You can’t compare a woman who has been raped to a woman who has been left by her husband, though both are in situations where they could react as classical victims.

But one of them — and that is Michèle, of course — chooses a very strange way to behave. She wants to take revenge herself, but not as the classical avenger who takes a gun and in the next scene shoots the guy who raped her. If she did that, there wouldn’t be any film. Instead she makes her response to being raped something she has to experiment with.

Gradually, as the story goes on and we gather all this information from her past and present, we might hypothesize about why she behaves the way she does. For example, she has a crazy mother who is sexually obsessed.

Paul Verhoeven directs Huppert in ‘Elle’
Paul Verhoeven directs Huppert in ‘Elle’ | © Sony Pictures Classics

I like the way [Paul] Verhoven throws bridges between one situation and another without concluding anything, just letting the audience make its own interpretation. It’s like he leaves gaps and it’s up to everybody to fill them the way they want, so at the end you have this strangely constructed woman — very complex, disturbing, and mysterious. But clear at the same time.

CT: What do you mean?

IH: She’s clear in the sense that you can come up with many interpretations. And she’s mysterious because it’s difficult to choose one interpretation more than another. But at the end you see that this woman went from A to B, or from A to Z, whatever, and accomplished something, a path. She was seeking something about herself, and it might be disturbing to accept that she turned her experience of being raped into an existential quest to understand a bit more about who she is.

Clearly, at the start, she finds herself at a strange stage in her life. She is a lonely woman living by herself in this big house. Her son is quite a failure, and so are her husband and her lover, and all those people are dependent on her. She is a woman of power who sort of runs everybody’s lives — financially, emotionally, psychologically. But everybody is a burden to her. And then, of course, she is the daughter of her father and that’s another burden.

CT: Do you think there’s a direct connection between her being the daughter of a serial killer and her sexually attacking the man who raped her?

IH: It has to have some connection with the present, otherwise Philippe Djian, the screenwriter, wouldn’t have written that heavy background. We don’t know exactly the degree of her complicity with her father — if you can call it complicity considering she was eight years old when she helped him burn everything in the house after he committed the murders. She certainly took some kind of guilt from that.

‘The Piano Teacher’
‘The Piano Teacher’ | © Kino Internationall

CT: You’ve played a number of perverse or damaged characters — obviously in La Cérémonie, The Piano Teacher, and Ma Mère, and now in Elle. Has playing them ever scared you?

IH: No, they never scared me. On the contrary, they attracted me, otherwise I wouldn’t have done them. They are very complex, rich roles, and I never thought they were difficult. Playing them always came very easily to me. Cinema allows you to play with ambiguities and nuances. It offers you such a large field of explorations, so why not take advantage of that and go as far as you can?

Plus, what is interesting about these characters is that they are all different — you can’t compare the woman in Ma Mère to the piano teacher. Yes, they are difficult characters but they thrive on such different motivations.

With Sandrine Bonnaire (l.) in ‘La Cérémonie’
With Sandrine Bonnaire (l.) in ‘La Cérémonie’ | © New Yorker Films

CT: Despite her traumatic childhood, Michèle is hardly what you’d call dark. She’s actually very funny.

IH: I was going to establish what I would call the innocent part of the character. You can’t really talk about innocence in her case, but you can certainly talk about her humor. There was something touching about that because it emerges through these multiple layers.

CT: The dinner party scene is eye-opening because she’s like a puppeteer, pulling everyone’s strings. Is it important for you to sometimes play women who exert control?

IH: Well, I don’t think that. What I really like about what I’m trying to do is I that I don’t think the characters I play are either strong or weak. They are always beyond that kind of categorization, you know? Even Elle isn’t a victim, but, again, she’s not a classical avenger. She’s always in an in-between space and so in that respect neither strong nor weak. She’s fearless, but I don’t see her as such a strong person.

But then it might be that I’m repulsed by the idea of categorizing people. Any human being can be categorized as strong or weak. Even the most powerful woman in the world is probably a weak person, too, you know what I mean? When everybody is being stuck into an image, you want to go behind that image.

CT: You’re talking about duality — it’s not just that everybody is weak and strong, everybody has good and evil in them, too.

IH: And we all know we each have a social personality, which is a kind of compromise because to be otherwise, you’d have to live alone on an island. We also each have a private figure, which is probably completely different. I probably know it more than anybody else because as an actor you are even more split between what you project and what you represent, between the way you’re perceived and what you are in reality. But it’s true for everybody. Everybody’s an enigma.

CT: Mia [Hansen-Løve] told me that you and she looked for a certain kind of innocence in Nathalie when you were making Things to Come.

IH: That’s right. You find it when you get rid of all self-defense and get to the core of someone. Innocence never comes without fragility. And people find those qualities very moving.

CT: You seem to have an unerring sense of how to make behavior natural when you’re in front of the camera. Does that take hard work?

IH: No. It’s very natural and instinctive and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me, if I dare say that.

CT: How would you describe your relationship with the camera?

IH: You ignore the camera and you don’t ignore it. Acting is about a high level of unconsciousness and super-consciousness at the same time. It’s hard to understand and it’s hard to explain.

CT: And do you think one of the main reasons you act is to be in that moment when it’s simply flowing?

IH: Absolutely. It’s a wonderful state this mixture of awareness and non-awareness. Yeah, it’s a very nice feeling.