Isabelle Huppert has long had a reputation as one of the most fearsome and fearless actresses in the world. There has always been something both steely and vulnerable about her screen presence, an ice queen willing to show her cracks.
Her electrifying performance in “Elle” has now earned Huppert her first Oscar nomination, following her recent win at the Golden Globes. Directed by the Dutch-born Hollywood veteran Paul Verhoeven, making his French-language debut with the film, “Elle” is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, “Oh…,” about a woman who becomes involved in a twisted series of power-plays on the man who raped her in her home.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the film “a masterpiece of suave perversity” while L.A. Times critic Justin Chang called Huppert’s work “masterful,” and this should come as little surprise regarding a project from the director of “Basic Instinct” and star of the sexually provocative “The Piano Teacher.” For her part, Huppert says she never purposely seeks out roles for the controversy.
“I don’t like thinking of them as provocative roles because I don’t take them as provocative roles,” Huppert said during a recent phone call from Paris. “Of course, truth is provocative most of the time, it’s provocative to say what’s in your mind and in your heart. To live in society most of the time means to compromise. So when cinema allows a character to take you past where a person would normally compromise, I think it’s really interesting. It’s not a provocation for me.
“I think that what I take from being an actress is to learn something about myself and to say something about whoever I play,” she added. “And to make a personal statement out of this, this is what draws me to being an actress.”
When Verhoeven was putting the project together, he was initially looking to set it in the United States and cast an American actress in the lead role. When he could not find anyone willing to take on the part, it eventually found its way to Huppert and being set in Paris. Now, of course, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.
“First of all it’s talent. Let’s just take the shortcut. This is an extremely talented actress,” Verhoeven said. “And in her head there is no fear. There is audacity about everything. If she feels she can connect with the character, she doesn’t care about any moral inhibitions and certainly doesn’t care what people will think about it.
“It is the performance of Isabelle Huppert, who makes this character, this kind of strange character, authentic,” he continued. “Even if you don’t follow her precisely in her actions, if you might disagree with the steps she takes in her life, you always feel in the movie that this character could do that. And I think that’s what Isabelle brought to the movie, that you believe it even when you disagree.”
Little more than a day after her Oscar nomination, Huppert was also nominated for the role at France’s César awards, where she is already the most nominated actress of all time. (The film received a leading 11 nominations overall in France, including best picture and director.)
Huppert prides herself on working with filmmakers from all over the world, from European titans such as Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke to Bong Joon-ho in Korea and Brillante Mendoza in the Philippines to younger French directors such as Mia Hansen-Løve and Serge Bozon.
She has made a few films in English as well. When she was recently accepting a prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for her performance in “Elle,” she made special note of directors Curtis Hanson, with whom she made 1987’s “The Bedroom Window,” and Michael Cimino (the much maligned “Heaven’s Gate”), who both died last year.
As she has been traveling to Los Angeles throughout the fall to promote “Elle,” she said those directors were often on her mind.
“I shared so much with the two of them,” she said, “but of course mainly with Michael Cimino because it was such a long adventure and so memorable and so significant in its failure, the whole story around ‘Heaven’s Gate’ set it apart as a completely unique experience.
“Curtis was a great, great director. I was really very sad when he left us, as I was for Michael. Michael was a huge, huge director for me and he was completely unique and original. So I am really proud to have shared those two people’s work at some point.”
Huppert also acknowledges the ways in which her commanding performance in “Elle” feels in some way like a summation of her career, for the ways in which it allows her to be both strong and fragile, sensual and cerebral.
“The role is so complete. In one role I’m playing many of the roles I’ve done before, except maybe something [new] that belongs to that role that wasn’t in previous films,” said Huppert. “The role is so complex, so many layers, so many situations. She is defined not only by her sexual life, which is of course very present in the film because of her desire and this very peculiar attraction to this man. But she is also defined as a mother, a daughter, as an ex-wife and as a woman of power because she runs this video game company.
“So there are multiple facets to the character, which makes it so you can turn her around, over and over and over and at the end of the day you still have a mystery,” she added. “And the mystery she has is the mystery that belongs to anybody in life, everybody has something that you can’t really explain or that you might not want to explain.”
Even for someone like Huppert, who has been lauded for her work all over the world, there is an element of unpredictability and uncertainty that keeps her excited about the work. A role like “Elle” is a perfect example, as she saw it as an interesting challenge but had no idea the accolades it would lead to. For Verhoeven, Huppert’s performance pushed the story into entirely unforeseen territory.
“It needed Isabelle Huppert to make it authentic and acceptable,” said the director. “I doubt there is anyone else in the world who could make this character so believable and at the same time so different from what people normally accept about characters.
“I realized after one or two days I had to just let her go, I felt she was so in control of the character and so clear about how it had to be expressed,” he said. “She was bringing the movie in directions which were not in the book or in the script or even in my head.”
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