Exclusive: Isabelle Huppert Talks Bringing ‘Elle’ To Life

While waiting to sit down with Isabelle Huppert one cannot pinpoint what or who to expect.

A lioness in her own right, the French actress has performed in over 100 film and television projects since her debut in 1971 and countless more theatrical productions. With 15 nominations she became the César Awards’ most nominated actress and has won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival twice.

Never one to shy away from on-screen intensity Huppert has mesmerized audiences through several films including Violette Noziére, The Piano Teacher, Story of Women, and La Ceremonie. Her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s latest emotional thriller Elle is no different.

Based on the Philippe Djian novel “Oh…”, the film follows Huppert’s character Michéle Leblanc, a woman whose history and being defies all stereotypes and explanation. It is a beautifully and brutally honest tale of the loss, desire, weakness, and power that resides in everyone. And while many will not know how to articulate what they’ve seen right after leaving the theater, it will be cemented into their consciousness long after.

Though she’s been sitting through interviews all day and has at least half a dozen more after me, Isabelle Huppert still shines with a quiet yet impenetrable spark of life that those in Hollywood can only refer to as “it”. She speaks with purpose and holds an amused expression that makes it seem like she knows everything about you before you say a word.

The Knockturnal’s exclusive interview with Huppert is below:

This film is remarkable because it stays with you, not because it was upsetting, but because it simply stays in your mind. How did you feel the first time you read the script?

Huppert: I didn’t read the script first, I read the book and the script was very similar to the book. So my first approach to the situations, to the role, to what the movie says was from the book and I think it’s probably the best approach to the film in itself because I think if I had only read the script I might have more questioning about it you know? But because the book gives you a bigger exposure and picture of everything you know, so it was all very accessible for me and easy. Even though the book carries a lot of ambiguities and mysteries, and secrets, but in the book, you feel how the character is and how she is defined by so many layers and relationships. She is everything. She is a woman, a daughter, a mother, a little girl, a lover, and on top of everything she doesn’t want to be a victim you know? That’s for sure. So from the moment the film starts she clearly defines herself as not willing to be a victim and willing to be something else, but she also doesn’t fall into the caricature of a classical avenger. It’s a lot trickier; otherwise, there would be a film (laughs), it would be very different. So from the moment the story starts with the rape scene, then it becomes an exploration of who she is and where she comes from and what defines her and what she seeks in life.

Absolutely. One thing I really loved about the film was not that the rape is unimportant, but it doesn’t define her, like so many assault stories where it’s the main point and then they’re (the character) a victim or they’re dealing with it, but that’s not her, she’s very much her own person. What do you think is the main characteristic in Michele Leblanc that differs her from anyone else in the film?

Huppert: I don’t know, you know when I started doing the movie I didn’t try to define her as someone specific, I think what defines her mostly is that she doesn’t really know exactly where she goes to. As in many occasions in life you know, it’s only in fiction or films that make you believe a character knows exactly what’s happening to her, you know in life that’s not the way it works actually. Things happen to you and it takes time to realize what’s happening to you and why you’re reacting in such a way or in a different way, I mean at least as far as I am concerned. I mean some people react more precisely or more quickly, I perfectly understand she goes at a slow pace in a way you know? Things happen to her and it takes time for her. Of course, it’s funny because in a way she reacts in a very strange way very quickly. She takes the broom, she takes all the broken pieces together and then she orders the sushi and then the son comes in. So that’s all very quick. On the other hand, it’s very slow, you know? It’s something slowly going on, because after the most obvious thing would be to go to the police, she doesn’t do this. So in that sense, she’s very slow. It’s exactly the way it takes her a long time to stand up after the rape happens and that’s the definition of exactly how she is going to react throughout the film, it takes time. She’s like this and you have a little classical music which I think is so important because it casts a certain…I wouldn’t say emotion, but I don’t know, it creates a certain atmosphere. You have Mozart and then very very slowly she emerges from that shock and she takes her time because she has to realize what just happened to her. And most of the time I think characters react too quickly in a movie, that’s not the way it happens in real life. That’s also what I liked about the film. On one hand, you can say it’s almost like a fairy tale, it’s like a fantasy, does not exist, it’s such an imaginary story, but on the other hand it’s very very true, it’s very real, and that I like about it.

Throughout most of your work, like Heaven’s Gate or Violette or even your early theatrical career with Madea, you’re used to playing women in very extreme situations, one way or the other. In this particular project were you nervous at all about portraying Michele’s personal journey?

Huppert: I wasn’t nervous at all. I was very quiet. (laughs)  No, it doesn’t bother me to play such characters, actually, I don’t feel anything when I do characters like this. I’m a very insensitive person you know. (laughter) I believe it when they say that a writer has to have some distance when they write books, it’s also why I put so much irony in the film because that’s what comes from me. She’s constantly ironic, I mean not all the time, but most of the time. She likes to take all situations and flip them in a funny way, to see the funny side of situations and it’s probably the way I am too most of the time. As an actress, I don’t see the difficulties. I’m insensitive, that’s how I do it and I do it with a lot of pleasure. So I don’t question myself whether the character would do this or do this. And my answer is not provocation you know? I’m being very true when I say that. It’s out of my field of experimental feelings. I just do it.

Actually, I never discussed the character with Paul Verhoeven, never. Not a word. He never said she should be like this, never.

It was just a mutual trust?

Huppert: An immense trust, yes. I felt completely in that quiet complicity and in complete trust with him.  One could think, especially for the rape scenes and all of that, but I knew that I was completely protected with him. I knew that no matter what I was doing his camera was going to capture it and keep it and understand it. It was great; it was just extraordinary for me.

Especially after this (American) election, and all over the world right now, feminism is such a hot topic.

Huppert: The movie is really about feminine empowerment. It’s as much about women as it is about men, by default, saying that the men are all weak. It’s like the all descend from a pedestal, you understand? They all fell, in a way even the rapist is falling from his pedestal. Even the violence. The fact that for her it’s a non-event, that it’s the worst attack she can do to him you know?

Absolutely, it’s also taking the power and retaining it. Like in the scene when she goes to visit her father in jail. Do you feel like that was a big moment as a way to confront the other things that had happened?

Huppert: What’s interesting about that scene, I think, I mean I don’t know if it’s palpable, but she goes to jail and then when she’s been told that he died, I don’t know something happens to her in that moment you know? She has a shock.

Do you think that’s why she’s with Anna at the end of the movie? Walking into the graveyard together, is that because they’re soul mates or because they’re separate but together against the men who’ve tried to define them in their lives?

Huppert: I think that everything is telling in the film you know? You can guess so many things, that’s the strength and the power of the movie.

Like when they show the little bird and she wants to save its life, which says so many things about violence, but also the price of this little life. It’s a little bird, but still, it’s important for her to keep it alive, and yet she has her father who killed 50 children. We all come from the same core in a way. So I think everything is really telling, also that the last scene takes place in a cemetery. It comes full circle.

The film is now playing and is France’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar race.

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