Isabelle Huppert

Interview by Iris Brey / Photography by Shawn Dogimont

Hobo #19 — Paris, November 2016. Once again in Elle, the redhead French icon, Isabelle Huppert, delivers an astounding performance. Based on the novel by Philippe Djian “ Oh…”, Paul Verhoeven captures the story of a woman who is raped in her home and decides to reinvent a relationship with the man who assaulted her. Profoundly disturbing and deeply enthralling, Elle is more a narrative about death than about rape. As the title indicates with the capitalized letter of the feminine pronoun she in French, the main character, Michelle, embodies a feminized allegory of The Reaper.

There is a sense of urgency when you meet the actress, in the way she moves, rattling off some answers, she has no time to waste, too many great projects that need to be birthed. She has almost become an auteur of the films she appears in as much as the directors. For Elle, she is “at the origin of the film”, at “the genesis” of its creation since after devouring the book, she went to see the producer Saïd Ben Saïd, who then thought of Verhoeven to film the adaptation. Thanks to Huppert’s brilliant interpretation, the director of Basic Instinct reinvents the codes of the erotic thriller by shifting away from the mechanics of suspense and always surprising us.

In her luminous apartment near Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with books overflowing in every corner of her living room, Huppert has just returned from Los Angeles. It is mid-November. The suspense is at its peak. We do not know yet if she will be nominated for the Oscars or if she will win. What is limpid though, is that we don’t need to hold our breath for her.

Isabelle Huppert

Iris Brey — You just came back from Los Angeles, everyone is whispering your name for an Oscar nomination for best actress.

Isabelle Huppert — I don’t want to talk too much about the Oscars, since if nothing happens I don’t want to look silly. All I can say for now is that I’m going back to the States next week, to New York, for my nomination for the Gotham Awards and I heard yesterday that I was nominated for the Spirit Awards. The only purpose of my visit last week was because Elle just came out in the States!

— What about that round table for the Hollywood Reporter, that was not lobbying?

— [laughs] It was an interesting experience. There was great energy around the table. You would never see this in France, because American actresses have this generosity when it comes to talking about their craft. I had to align myself to them and also share. But I don’t think that I have the same approach to acting as them. The discourse that we are used to hearing is an actress saying that she identifies with her character, that there is a sort of political commitment to certain roles. I don’t relate to that, I have a different approach. I said that I didn’t think that any role changed the way I think about life for example. I could feel that Annette Bening and Amy Adams were picking up on what I was trying to articulate, that they were nodding to what I was saying.

— What kind of relationship do you have with American cinema?

— Like everyone, I watch American movies. Their independent productions are very interesting to me but I don’t watch their blockbusters. I hardly work in the States. I did a small apparition in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby because Jessica Chastain is a friend and asked me to. But the last movie I shot was I Heart Huckabees and that was like thirteen years ago. But I’m very happy with the work I have done in the U.S. I did six movies there and six movies with great directors.

— What is the main difference for you between French and American directors?

What is striking with American cinema is the idea they have of what an auteur is. For me, there are only auteurs! All filmmakers are auteurs. But in the States there is a difference that is quite clear-cut between the auteurs and the rest of the directors. It’s quite curious, it is as if auteurs were another species. Several times during my last trip to L.A. people were referring to Elle as an auteur film. I can understand that there is another category for films that are perceived as more popular, maybe that is not the right word since an auteur movie can be popular as well… so you can’t categorize things too easily. In any case, they have a way of speaking about these things that is quite surprising. So it does reveal that cinema is not perceived the same way in the U.S. The principal definition of what cinema embodies, at least for me, is a means to express yourself individually, with freedom. For the American audience, the films that I have done in the U.S. are part of that auteur style. And they are exactly in the lineage of the movies that I do with French directors. David O. Russel, Michael Cimino, Hal Hartley, Curtis Hanson who just died. And also Otto Preminger. Americans often mention his movie Rosebud, while in France, since no one ever saw it, it is never brought up. But I am very happy to have Otto Preminger as well in my filmography, it is quite pleasant!

— Talking about that idea of auteur, I feel like in the U.S. what comes closest to the figure of the auteur, as New Wave directors conceived it, is the showrunner. Do you feel like the showrunners of TV series are the real auteurs in the States?

— I have never watched a TV series. It’s embarrassing but that’s the way it is. I just don’t have the time and I have no idea how to download things. So there is a technical aspect that is a barrier. I vaguely have a computer, but I hardly know how it works. I am very far from all that technology. I watched a couple of episodes from The Sopranos, and vaguely an episode of Downton Abbey. Both seemed great, but when I have time I just go to the movies.

— What about in airplanes?

— I also watch movies! Maybe one day I will be in an American series. You know, I actually did an episode of Law and Order: SVU, two or three years ago. I thought it was fun, they wrote the episode for me. And Sharon Stone was the guest star.

Isabelle Huppert

— Sharon Stone brings us back to Verhoeven and his depiction of women. Elle stirred a controversy in France within feminist groups. One side was denouncing the movie as a vindication of rape.

— No one has brought up the feminist questions during any Q and A or at any festival. I was left out of the debates it created among feminist circles. The film is of course not a vindication of rape (apologie du viol). In the beginning, she decides to trivialize what happened to her. And the film slowly unravels why she reacts this way. Her reaction is also linked to her sexuality. She says this great line that shame is certainly not an emotion that should prevent us from doing anything, so she is above the notion of shame. [spoiler] There is an initial tragedy since her father is a serial killer so we can imagine that she grew up with a different relationship to the notion of shame and guilt. That is the central point of her life and her reaction to her rape. The character decides not be a victim after it happens to her, which is surprising. Even when she tells her friends at the restaurant, she says: “I think I was raped.” It is something she completely removes herself from. The ending also gives a type of moral to the story, since the rapist dies. There is a sort of final punishment for the man. In no way is the film exonerating rape.

— The criticism was also that it was not a realist depiction of how women react after a rape.

— It is a fiction and it is the story of one woman, the film isn’t a general representation of women who are raped. It happens in a specific context that is linked to this woman’s relationship with her past and to violence. There is a strong sense of reality, but at the same time, the film could have an unreal feel because her character is also completely unique. You have never seen a woman like this before. She is a non-emotional character, she is never reflecting about what happened to her in a compassionate manner. She is constantly moving. Things happen to her without her wanting them to happen. While I was playing her, I felt like each situation was not linked to the next one. There isn’t a feeling that something was triggered by the thing that happened before. When she orders sushi after she was raped, those two events feel separated. There is no comment on what just happened. Never. For example when she takes her bath and the blood is coming to the surface, I am not shaking, I am removed as if I am dissociated from what happened. It seemed normal to me. [spoiler] Even when her rapist dies in the end, she feels nothing.

— It is interesting you pick the verb ‘dissociate’ since the term dissociation is usually utilized by rape victims to describe the state they are in while they are raped. However, your character gets into that state after her rape.

— Yes that’s true. And I think that is also something that I wanted to bring to the role. It was my rendition of her. I decided not to dissolve into tears after the rape, even though I think Verhoeven would have been surprised if I had done that!

— What is destabilizing is that we are used to seeing women as victims and Michelle is, as you have said in interviews, a sort of post-feminist character who is not defined as a victim nor as your typical avenger.

— All things considered, she is sort of the man of the movie. Of course it is the story of a woman but she embodies the man: everyone depends on her, she is the breadwinner. She has harsh relationships with her mom and her son but she gives them money, they live on her money. All the masculine figures that surround her are weak. It is a movie about a woman who is the man in the story and by default a film about men that aren’t really the women in the story but that could be the fading figures of authority and power. The men are literally collapsing in the movie. That gender reversal is interesting to me. But while I was shooting the movie, none of these questions were explicit in my head.

— Michelle is also a mother in Elle, and not a conventional one. Her own mother even compares her to Medea during the diner scene. You have often played mothers that pushed the boundaries when it came to traditional representations of motherhood in Ma mère by Christophe Honoré, Private property by Joachim Lafosse, The Sea Wall by Rithy Pahn, White Material by Claire Denis. 

— It is true that during a period of time I only played mother. Hysterical mothers, bad mothers, overprotective, tentacular mothers. Mothers that were never reassuring. In most of the movies like My Little Princess, The Sea Wall, Copacabana my characters was first defined by her function as a mother. All the mothers I played were always complicated: they were shaking the cliché-ridden images that we have of mothers. But I love playing them. I like having children in the story. And I have no problem personally with being a mother! I am very close to my daughter [actress Lolita Chammah] and I even loved playing a mother-daughter relationship with her in Copacabana by Marc Fitoussi. The fact that we were in a professional setting together was a very strange sensation. We could not take ourselves seriously. It felt like we were like two kids. We were laughing so hard on the first day of shooting.

— You are also very good at making people laugh and surprisingly Elle has some very funny scenes.

— I really wanted to bring laughter to Elle. I wanted to replace every foreseeable emotion by humor and irony. Films for me are made to challenge preconceived notions. Cassavetes said that all movies are about love and the lack of love. I think that is a great quote, that works perfectly for Elle and it is also true about so many films. He also said that movies should be about something that you don’t have answers to. So that also includes maternity!