For her astonishing performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Isabelle Huppert has won numerous critical awards, including Best Actress from the N.Y. and L.A. Film Critics Associations. If there is any justice, Huppert should also garner her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Joining the ELLE project at early stage.
Isabelle Huppert: I read “Oh…” and met with Philippe Djian, who told me that he hadn’t written it for me, but that he had me in mind at various moments during writing of the novel. The book, as a lot of people said when it came out, reads like a screenplay. You can’t help thinking it could become a movie. Then Saïd Ben Saïd bought up the rights and we started to think about a director. It was Saïd who thought of Paul Verhoeven.
What did you like about the novel and this female character?
IH: She never falls. She is many and varied: cynical, generous, endearing, cold, commendable, independent, dependent, perspicacious. She is anything but sentimental; she is pummeled by events, but she doesn’t crack. Verhoeven held firm on that, without trying to whittle away at our fundamental position. You could rely on him for that. That’s the point of the character—her strength, originality and modernity. She never behaves like a victim, even when she has every reason to do so: victim first of her mass murderer father and then of her rapist. Guilt, submitting to events—so many notions that it is hard to rid from female characters. Even if they are strong women, they always have that hanging over them in the movies: the temptation to veer toward emotion, which turns out to be phony—a slightly gooey sentimentalism.
Your performance—slightly removed and playful
IH: Making her mellower would have been a serious mistake. But once again with Verhoeven, there was no chance of that! The only time I allowed myself to hint at emotion is at the hospital when her mother is sick and we realize that she is dying. Suddenly, Michèle kind of softens. Not when she’s a mother, lover or her father’s daughter, but when she’s her mother’s daughter. For a woman, is one’s mother’s death the moment you irrevocably become an adult? I’m extrapolating slightly, but I mean to say that, at that particular moment, I may not have been displeased for the camera to capture that—a touch more emotion, tears welling up, a frantic flicker of the eyes. But the cinema has an unconscious, too! Whatever it refuses, it refuses to see.
Familiarity with Verhoeven’s work?
IH: The first of his movies that I saw was TURKISH DELIGHT. Its heroine is practically the opposite of Michèle, a modern-day Lady of the Camellias, finally succumbing to illness. It was a kind of poignant, tragic fairy tale. The last thing you’d expect from Verhoeven. Elle is also a kind of fairy tale. From that point of view, Verhoeven and Djian were a perfect fit. While speaking to the period, by some sort of sleight of hand they make us take things at face value, without trying to reposition them in a psychological or overly emotive context. The fairy tale allows for a kind of abruptness—there’s no need to explain or justify things— down to the geography of the movie that contrasts city and suburbs, which are depicted with a hint of poetry, radiating a sense of nature and solitude.
Clues to the character but none explains her?
IH: The film moves too fast for that. Trying to explain the characters might tend to shatter the balance that is the story’s strength by dragging it into the drudgery of attempted explanations. Michèle is totally in the scene at the moment it occurs. What matters is how she moves forward, not backward.
Michèle’s confession of her father’s murders to Patrick captures this refusal to congeal your character in explanations. You swing us through horror, humor, doubt, emotion…Once more, the plan wasn’t to tell a tale of pain. Michèle has taken a step back—it was the only way for her to survive her past. She serves all that up with devastating humor, as if she were holding out a plate of poison and saying, «A second helping, surely?» Djian doesn’t believe in half-measures. Her father killed seventy young children and she has to live with that ignominy, that catastrophe.
One might think that during the attack in the cellar, she reruns the trauma she experienced with her father and then with her rapist first time around, but this time with a measure of control over events and over the violence.
The rape unleashes a desire for violence in her, which may have been dormant since she was a young child. As a master manipulator, she knows how to orchestrate all that, even though she is aware that everything within her has been turned on its head by this rape. She doesn’t come out of it unscathed.
Playing a woman who enjoys intimacy with her rapist?
Once again, the film is a fairy tale. And the fairy tale leads to fantasy. The effect of reality is modified, altered. In a fairy tale, everything is exaggerated, so anything is possible. Morality is kindly requested to step off. A game is played out between Michèle and her rapist, and it’s her choice.
What was it like on set with Paul Verhoeven?
IH: He has the formidable precision of an entomologist. His attention to the tiniest detail is almost mind-blowing. You feel very free around him, you can come up with thousands of ideas. The shoot was like doing 300 mph down the freeway. I was in almost every shot for the twelve weeks of shooting. At no point was there a let-up in the pressure and tension. I reveled in the infernal rhythm of one shot after another. It was never-ending, and this almost hallucinatory precision kept you constantly on your toes. It’s like an intoxicating liquor. Paul swept the whole crew along behind him. They would have done anything for him. Paul is never tired; nothing ever stops him. He could leave us absolutely drained at the end of the day, while he kept working for five more hours.
How is Dutch director Verhoeven different from a French director?
IH: He possesses a sense of rhythm and movement, and he doesn’t hesitate to blur the line without wondering whether he’s making a portrait of a woman, a snapshot of society, or a genre movie or thriller. I’m not saying that a French filmmaker wouldn’t do that, but let’s just say that it would be more of a surprise.
The film sometimes dares to verge on romanticism?
In all his movies, he constantly plays with codes, subverts them, uses them when he needs them, then abandons them. He never falls into the trap of his film veering off in one direction and not coming back.
The film is suffused in action and pleasure of making movies.
IH: That pleasure, I felt it every moment of every day. The blocking and direction of actors are nothing less than the art of movement: how the camera embraces the actors, how it espouses both their inner rhythm and their relationship with the outside world. The actor is like a sponge, unconsciously reactive to the precision of that movement and the distance with regard to the camera. The direction of a given scene really does resolve all the issues that you might ask yourself when you act.
In Djian’s novel she is in movies, in the film she is in video games business
IH: Verhoeven uses the phantasmagoria of video games as a contemporary extension of the fairy tale dimension. A blend of sex and violence, like an allegorical echo of the movie’s whole story.
Men don’t necessarily come out of this well, especially Robert, Michèle’s lover, to whom she says, “Your stupidity was what first attracted me.”
the men constantly get knocked down to size. The son, the husband, the lover, and even the rapist! But for all their weakness—spinelessness, in some cases—these men are neither despised, nor despicable. Their flailing vulnerability is endearing. But it is a fact: Michèle is a strong woman, a woman of her times, who has taken power. Economic, social and sexual power— a minor revolution revealing men’s weakness.
At the end, Michèle and Anna walk away together?
IH: Sure, they walk away, but through a graveyard not a field of roses. How far? I don’t know. Together, at least.
Interview by Claire Vassé