Elle: Interview with Director Paul (Basic Instinct) Verhoeven

Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is France’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

Idea to adapt Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…” ?

Paul Verhoeven: The idea wasn’t mine; it came from the producer, Saïd Ben Saïd.  He contacted me in the US, sent me Philippe Djian’s novel, which I read and found very interesting. I knew we had the material for a movie, but I had to think it through and find my way of appropriating a story I would never have come up with myself.

Adaptation process?

It was very important for me to re-appropriate the story. A lot of things were thrashed out in conversations with David Birke, who wrote the American screenplay. I never write the first draft of a script, I always leave that to a real screenwriter. At that stage, everything was still open: things gradually took shape, like a sculpture. My personality as director gradually insinuated itself into the story. The storyboard stage was also crucial to making the novel mine by providing  a visual translation of the action.

Shooting Elle in the U.S.?

PV: Yes, which explains picking out an American writer, with a view to shifting the action from Paris to Boston or Chicago, with a wholly American cast. But it was tricky, artistically as well as financially. We realized that no American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie. Even for actresses I know really well, it was impossible to say yes to this part, whereas Isabelle Huppert, whom I had met at the outset, was very keen to do the movie. Around six months in, Saïd said to me, “Why are we fighting to make the movie in the US? It’s a French novel, Isabelle Huppert is keen to do it—we’re stupid!” And he was right. I realize now that I could never have made this movie in the US, with this level of authenticity.

Michèle is strong woman but she reacts in disturbing way to rape

PV: It’s a story, not real life, nor a philosophical vision of women! This particular woman acts that way, which doesn’t mean that all women will or should act that way. But Michèle does! And my job consisted above all in directing this story in the most real, interesting and credible way possible. Thanks especially to Isabelle Huppert, whose incredible performance makes her character’s behavior completely convincing.

Your direction never seeks to explain?

PV: Explaining is what the audience has to do for itself using the elements they’ve been given, without one of them justifying everything on its own. For example, I didn’t want anyone to be able to say that Michèle was so traumatized as a child by her father’s acts that it’s normal for her to react to the rape that way. I wanted to escape that constrained vision of the character and her behavior. It’s a possibility but no more than that. The explanation is, simply, Michèle, in every aspect of her personality. As for working out if she was always like that or became that way because… We just don’t know.

Master of the art of ambiguity

When Isabelle Huppert saw the movie, that was one of the things she said to me: “The most interesting aspect is the perpetual ambiguity.” She’s right, it’s always ambiguous. It’s hard to completely grasp this woman. Everything is fluctuating, strands intertwine…I had already done that in other movies, particularly Total Recall—in a totally different genre—by combining dream and reality. At the end, you’re not sure what to think. It’s unclear. I like keeping options open. Just like in life, you never know what’s hiding behind a smile. Or not.

Very early on, Michèle pictures a scene of her killing her attacker. This fantasy scene contributes to the atmosphere of blurred lines and to the expression of this woman’s complex personality.

Michèle has no problem imagining her rapist’s death. And at the end of the movie, when it actually occurs and her rapist removes his mask before dying, a smile flickers across her face. It’s a very important moment that we discussed at length with Isabelle. What she does is minimal—she doesn’t act, she doesn’t intervene, she just thinks and we see her thinking, “It’s all you deserve. You’re paying for what you did at the start”. There’s a hint of divine retribution in her eyes. And irony: “You should have seen it coming. Now, it’s too late!”.

The rape scenes are like black holes in a tale of daily life that starts back up again for Michèle, as if nothing had happened.

I like doing that a lot. In Robocop, for example, I interspersed the storytelling with news footage and fake commercials. I think it comes from my interest in painting, in Mondrian, with the juxtaposition of blue and red squares interrupted by black lines. The rape scenes had to be disturbing. If I shot them like the rest of the story, it would have been nonsensical and dishonest. We had to be confronted with the violence of those scenes.

Despite violence of attacks, Michèle is not downcast or damaged

PV: No, that would be too conventional. We’d be slipping into melodrama and boredom. It’s more interesting and amusing to surprise the audience, rather than happily regurgitate what has already been done by other directors and writers. I’m a great admirer of Stravinsky and his unusual way of composing his symphonies, of subverting the norm. Also, that artistic decision keys into the character of Michèle and her attitude to events: I was raped but I’m here now and it doesn’t matter. Let’s order a drink and some dinner!

Moral implications: Michèle is not a victim

PV: Just like the plot, morality is open to manipulation in this movie. As soon as we can, we have to try to veer off the beaten path. Djian doesn’t make Michèle a victim either. Taking the opposite course would have been unfaithful with regard to the book.

The violence endured by Michèle is also a means of self-knowledge

PV: She’s already made a good job of owning them! Michèle is a very aggressive woman. Her mother criticizes her for wanting everything to be healthy and sanitized, but I confess I never understood that line, which came from the book! Her attitude toward her mother, her son and his girlfriend is very harsh. She expresses great animosity toward them, and toward her friends and acquaintances generally. There is violence in all my movies, but it seems normal to me—it’s simply the violence in the world that makes headlines in the press, on every page, not just the front page. The media is full of bad news: we’re addicted to disasters because disasters are fascinating and can be beautiful as well. Seen from a particular distance, like Turner paintings, destruction can be sublime. Close up, of course, it’s horrible.

One scene captures the contradictory emotions we feel while watching: Michèle’s confession of her father’s murders to Patrick. We are in turn horrified, amused, skeptical, touched.  The way she tells the whole gruesome story with a smile… That scene wasn’t in the novel. David Birke wrote it and Isabelle immediately understood that it needed to be played lightly to string us along. You can’t work out: is she’s emotional or fooling with Patrick. Very few actresses could do what she does. And in the background, there’s the music of the mass. Finally, in similar tones, the film’s score takes over almost up to Michèle’s “Not bad, huh?” Then we go back to the music from the mass, whose gravity and solemnity give the scene an emotional dimension that contrasts with Isabelle’s lighthearted tone.

First film shot in France

PV: It was hugely enjoyable because there is a lot of respect in France for film and directors. More than in Holland or the USA. So there was no problem, except with my brain! Before I came here to make the movie, I had terrible headaches that my doctor couldn’t explain. The moment I moved to Paris and started work on the movie, they went away for good. In fact, the headaches came from fear—fear of the unknown, fear of diving into a different culture and different language. After a few weeks in Paris, my brain realized I had enough hold over the film, and came to terms with the whole extraordinary adventure. Having made movies in Holland for twenty-five years, then for another fifteen in the United States, it really was a step into the unknown, from a quasi-existential point of view. Everything was new to me—actors, crews, locations… And that was great because when you launch yourself into the unknown, you become extremely creative and inspired. I felt the same when I left Holland to make Robocop in the States.

Novel’s French mindset is shaken up by your direction

PV: The film focuses on the social interactions of all these characters more than the actual crime story. I prepped for it by watching French films, but I really wanted to make something different with constant tension. That’s the only way I know how to work, by repeatedly breaking up the linearity of the story, which explains the scene in the car between Patrick and Michèle after the party. It wasn’t in the novel—David wrote it to reinject some narrative tension. Michèle has just admitted to Anna that she was having an affair with Anna’s husband and now she threatens Patrick, saying she’ll tell everything to the police. When she gets out of the car, will he try to kill her? She seems to half-expect it and a very scary game plays out between them.

Working with French actors?

PV: Fabulous. And not very different from working with other actors.  In most cases, I wasn’t familiar with their previous work. I picked them mostly on instinct. I wanted them to be beautiful, alluring, and not too French-looking! I think I filmed them through an American filter almost. We had a few conversations and my directions were fairly basic—less movement, pare it down. It was fascinating, for example, to see an excellent actor, such as Charles Berling, change his style of performance from one minute to the next.

Isabelle Huppert familiar with your work?

Six or seven years ago, TURKISH DELIGHT was screening at the Cinémathèque Française and Isabelle was there to present the movie. She said that she first saw it when she was very young and that it was one of the reasons why she became an actress. Isabelle is fearless. Nothing is a problem for her. She will try anything, she is phenomenally bold.

Laurent Lafitte?

PV: When we met, I asked Laurent to do the scene where he offers to show Michèle the boiler in his basement, with a dangerous, almost demonic twinkle in his eyes, whereas he is so upbeat and smiling the rest of the time. And he was able to do it. And he’s so handsome!

Then we chose Virginie Efira. We’d written his wife as a withdrawn, not very happy woman, but that made Patrick’s urge for an affair with Michèle far too comprehensible. It was better for her to be beautiful and adult. Virginie is pitch perfect, even though her sex appeal is exploited here less than in other films. As soon as I met her, it was obvious she was right for the part. As for Anne Consigny, Judith Magre, Vimala Pons and Alice Isaaz, they all have a lot of character!

Choice of Stéphane Fontaine as cinematographer

PV: I wanted a kind of looser feel, not over-framed. I studied the work of several French DPs, and there was some of that in A Prophet and Rust and Bone, the two Audiard pictures that Stéphane Fontaine lit. I suggested we shoot with two cameras—a method I had just used in Holland on Tricked, a TV movie written by online contributors. Every set-up was planned for two cameras, often placed very close to each other to facilitate continuity, so the cuts in editing weren’t as obvious. I did more long takes than usual, with hand-held cameras. I wanted a kind of casual aspect, like somebody watching. The camera moves slightly, in almost voyeuristic observation.

During the first two attacks, the soundtrack is scaled down

PV: That basement scene starts with electronic music, like the two earlier rape scenes, but orchestral music then fades in. We had long talks with Anne Dudley, our English composer, about what we wanted to express. It’s absolutely clear, at that moment, that Michèle is consenting, that she has responded positively to his invitation in what is almost a scene of seduction. She has taken the decision to play this masochistic game on her own terms. You might think this powerful woman perhaps agrees to play out a game of domination to reenact the murders perpetrated by her father, while controlling the exact sequence of events this time.

Sure, even if I don’t say so explicitly. It’s up to audiences to draw their own conclusions. He’s just had his orgasm and he gets up. Only then does she climax too. Something rises in her that, I think, has to do with everything that happened so many years before. Just then, thanks to this masochistic game perhaps, she releases all the accumulated misery. At least, that’s how I described it to Anne Dudley, so that her score would aim for a tragic, romantic feel. In the novel, Michèle isn’t present at the time of her father’s tragic actions. In your movie, not only is she there, there is also the picture of her staring into space on the TV news. It’s an image that brings to mind a fantasy or horror movie. True, it wasn’t in the novel. Once again, it was David Birke’s idea, but he was undoubtedly inspired by the Michèle character that Djian had created. That’s all part of the process of turning a novel’s words into moving pictures.

Reconstitution of the primetime crime investigation documentary?

PV: I watched a lot of tapes of similar shows to absorb their aesthetic approach and copy the way they frame and edit shots. While the rest of the film tends toward elegance, I asked Stéphane Fontaine to film these scenes in a jerkier style, and I accentuated it in editing. Then we worked on the footage to give it a grainier, older feel. The whole point was to make audiences feel they are watching genuine archive footage of real-life events. That was also the case in Djian’s novel. He came up with the whole story by drawing his inspiration from Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Who conceptualized the video game produced by Michèle

PV: Creating a video game from scratch would have been too expensive. We didn’t have time to do it, either, so we based it on an existing French video game that we tweaked to fit the story. The video game heightens the atmosphere of violence, especially with the porn video that is posted to the whole staff’s computers. In the novel, Michèle and Anna work in the screenwriting business, but it seemed a boring job to film, not at all visual! I was in L.A. with my family, wondering what I could do with that, and my daughter, who is a painter, said, “How about they work in video games?”.

Patrick’s wife, Rebecca, has one of the last lines in the movie

PV: I’m no Christian, and I’ve never been in a church, except Notre Dame to admire the architecture, but I have some interest in religion. I studied the life of Jesus for a book and I’d like to make it into a movie. Just like sex and violence, religion is very important. Twenty years ago, everybody thought religion’s influence severely diminished, but it is all over our societies again now, and not in a positive way. So I thought it would be interesting to show a character truly driven by her faith. Rebecca is slightly naïve and very devout. She goes on a pilgrimage de Santiago de Compostela. Whenever I could, I enjoyed cranking up the religious dimension, especially at the dinner when she asks to bless the meal, and then to watch midnight mass. And at the end, she informs Michèle that she was aware of her husband’s actions. Like the Catholic church, which knew for years what some priests were doing to little boys.

Film’s title?

“Oh…” brought to mind The Story of O, a book that the French producer Pierre Braunberger asked me to adapt right after Turkish Delight. Elle was my producer’s idea and I find that it captures what lies at the heart of a movie focused on this singular woman.

Michèle and Anna’s walking away together

PV: When we shot that scene, they ended up kissing, but it was too much and not at all in the style of the movie, which never says things explicitly. Same goes for when they’re in bed together.  I had shot what happened next, the two of them making love, but there were already enough clues, so I preferred to cut to next morning and leave everything to audiences’ imaginations, if they cared to imagine it. When you deploy irony, you have to play on nuances and doubt, and never throw an interpretation into audiences’ faces.

Interview by Claire Vassé.