Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert captured international acclaim in 2016 with three very diverse roles: divorced professor Nathalie in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, reclusive chanteuse Laura in Souvenir and her explosive role in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which recently took home two Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Picture and Best Performance by an Actress (Drama). This week she’ll be competing for her first Academy Award.
Elle has caused a stir worldwide since the film’s release in November, with Huppert playing the lead role of Michèle, the head of a videogame company who suffers a brutal rape in the film’s opening scene and goes on to form an unlikely liaison with her next door neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Both critics and audiences have been captivated by the controversial ambiguity of both Michèle’s attack and response to her attack, which raises more questions than it answers. Is she unlikeable? In denial? In control? Is Michèle’s reaction exactly the response you would expect from a woman who’s constantly dealing with fires throughout their life, forced to compete in male-dominated industry? Paste sat down with Huppert to find out.
Paste Magazine: I feel like I’m in the minority, because I identified with Elle very strongly.
Isabelle Huppert: Why do you feel that is a minority? Because most people I’ve met receive the film that way.
Paste: That makes me happy! I feel like people have been unsure of how they’re supposed to respond because the subject matter is controversial.
Huppert: Yes, but strangely, and maybe I haven’t talked to everybody, so far I’ve only talked to people who think like you, and who seem to get the film, beyond the controversy.
Paste: One of the most interesting things that struck me about Elle was this notion of consent versus non-consent, because you have two characters who are mutually attracted to each other, and we get to see them both in scenes where they are fully consenting to what’s going on, and scenes where there isn’t consent to what’s going on. And that’s not something depicted on screen very often.
Huppert: That’s for sure.
Paste: Obviously there’s a lot of purposeful ambiguity to many of the scenes in the film when it comes to consent and aggression. When Michèle reaches under the dinner table in an early scene to put her hand on her attractive next-door neighbor Patrick’s thigh, for instance, after he casually touches her hand, she’s shown as very sexually aggressive.
Huppert: Instead of being offended, she goes further than he intends to go. That’s my interpretation. Don’t you think so?
Paste: I do.
Huppert: It’s true that it’s unusual, because he goes for her hand, and she says, “Oh, very quick, very fast, we haven’t even started eating yet,” and then she goes further. One could think that—in principle—normally she should just leave things where they are, and hope that he’s going to stop. But she’s always affirming something of her empowerment, in a way, and that’s exactly what she does in every field of her life. But in a very simple way. Without asking too many questions.
Paste: It seems like the central theme of her character is control. She’s looking for control.
Huppert: Exactly! She’s not even a flirtatious person, it’s not like she’s going to give him eyes or whatever, no. He goes for the hand, she goes for the leg. That’s it. It’s exactly what you said. Meanwhile, so many things are happening around the table, it makes the whole thing so funny, to be honest. There is an almost perverse pleasure because [Rebecca, Patrick’s] wife [played by Virginie Efira] just asked to say the prayer [while their flirtation is occurring].
Paste: Religion has an interesting through line in the film, particularly with Rebecca’s character, a devout Christian, and especially when she reveals that she knew all along that her husband was the one responsible for Michèle’s attack—
Huppert: It’s a very deep statement [when Rebecca reveals that she knew about her husband’s crimes]. It’s a big surprise, of course, because obviously she knew all about it and she says [to Michèle] thank you for giving him what he needed. But it’s also what Paul [Verhoeven] says, what the Catholics say: “Love your enemy.” And it’s always so ambiguous with Verhoeven, because if that’s what “love your enemy” means, then because she’s a religious person, because she’s a Catholic, she accepted something that shouldn’t be accepted. And in fact, it’s something Michèle doesn’t want to accept. In the car, she says, “I don’t want other women to bear what I’ve borne.” She has a plan from the beginning. She knows that what he does should be punished, in one way or another. And she says, “I think about other women.”
She has a very feminine and feminist concern about what it means. Even though she has, for reasons that can be understood from her childhood, a kind of an attraction to him, she also has her intellectual, conscious, cerebral thinking. That’s why it’s so interesting: On one hand she thinks he should be punished not only for herself but for other people as well, and on the other hand—of course she has an attraction.
Paste: What’s interesting in the culmination of Michèle’s “relationship” with Patrick is their final encounter, because the scene is shot so ambiguously that you don’t know whether she’s playing into his violent fantasy to get what she wants, or she’s willing to subject herself to his desires to get what she wants, but, either way, she’s getting what she wants.
Huppert: Exactly. But you are never really sheltered from [the attack that] happens in the cellar, and it shows you always, whatever you do, you take a risk. And in that scene you can feel that she took the risk. Obviously something happens to her in that scene. No matter what you call it, something is happening to her. But at least when what happens at the end—I don’t want to unveil the ending—she doesn’t show any sign of emotion. That means that the story ends in the right place. If she was sad, it could become a bit disgusting.
Paste: It’s definitely important to continue the ambiguity.
Huppert: Of course. And even at the very end, when the friend says, “Why did you do what you did?” And she says, “I don’t know, just because I wanted to do it.” That also sets up sexual desire as what it is sometimes, you know, detached from emotion. Love is different. Sometimes you have to admit…you often say that for a man love is detached from desire. It is also the case for a woman, you know what I mean?
Paste: In your larger body of work, you take a lot of risks with interesting sexual dynamics, like in this film, and in The Piano Teacher. You seem to play a lot of sexually confident women.
Huppert: I take risks because I don’t know I take risks. Sometimes when I hear people say I did, I say, “Oh my God, I did that?” And then sometimes I feel like, “OK.” But it’s precisely because sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m doing it with a different part of myself, not really thinking about what it means. It’s funny, because I’ve read things that have been written about me, like I’m a cerebral actress, I’m a direct actress, and it’s the total opposite, in a way, because when I do these kinds of roles, I don’t have the least little awareness of how risky it is, how daring it is, how disturbing it is. It’s very strange. It’s all normal to me.
Paste: Maybe what I identify with when I see you on screen is this ageless curiosity to most of your characters. In the U.S. there’s a lot of discussion about roles for women, when you’re allowed to play a romantic lead or a mother, and I never see that delineation in your roles.
Huppert: No, because age is irrelevant in those roles, and I don’t define them through the age. It doesn’t really intervene. I don’t think about that.
Paste: What are you afraid of at this point in your career?
Huppert: I’m not afraid of anything. I’m afraid of everything, in general, but I don’t think in those terms: afraid, risky. It’s completely outside my field of vision. I’m not afraid. I get good roles with good directors. I do what I need to do to make those things happen. I’m active, but it doesn’t come out of fear, it just comes out of desire to make things, and the pleasure of doing it.
And then when it comes time to act, it’s the easiest thing in the world to me. It might sound strange, but I decide to do a role, I do it and that’s all. I don’t think. It’s never difficult. I just do it. Of course, that comes with my way of thinking, it comes with my comprehension of the role, it comes with so many things, but I just do it.
Paste: I think that reads a lot in your performances where people expect a big reaction. Obviously Elle is a very hyperbolic, energetic film, but in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, for example, the moment when Natalie’s husband (André Marcon) tells her he’s leaving her for another women, you give a very soft and subtle reaction that’s not necessarily expected, but it’s also very realistic.
Huppert: Absolutely. My only purpose is to be as true as possible. And I don’t question myself, especially in the case of a film like Elle, as to whether it’s going to be acceptable, because I reject the idea of character. I don’t know what it means to play a character. I know what it means to play certain situations, and feelings, and certain states of mind. But a character? It’s out of my vocabulary. I never play characters. I just play people, that’s all. I don’t lose time questioning whether I should do this, or do that, no, I just want it to be as true as possible. How to make it real? That’s my only concern. Only if it’s real can people understand and identify with the character. I don’t need to identify with the character myself. But people have to relate to a character.
Paste: It’s remarkable given how different the tone of Things to Come is versus Elle that the anchoring of the performances makes them real, even though the films and characters are completely different.
Huppert: But they have similarities. I like to establish the similarities. From the cat, to the crazy mother, to the fact that they are both women always standing, always moving on. And they both do a lot of walking. I like walking characters. But of course, apart from this, they have differences. But they’re not too different, because each of them, they have a great sense of irony. They like to diminish the tragedy of life. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hurt by life, but they want to keep [tragedy] down.
Paste: In any bad situation, you can let it continue to re-victimize you, or you can walk away, and I think that everyone would like to be someone who can walk away. So it’s very cathartic on screen when you’re able to see somebody else face these things.
Huppert: Absolutely. Though, especially in the case of Things to Come, there is a lot of suffering in many moments. But there is always something good on top of that.
Elle Schneider proudly wore her I <3 Isabelle Huppert button during the interview.