Isabelle Huppert uncovers the true strength of her characters

February 17, 2017
Isabelle Huppert in “Elle.” Photo by Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Isabelle Huppert, the reigning queen of French cinema, glided into an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel looking regal. The petite actress was elegant in a chic fitted jacket and high heels, her face pale and sculpted as a marble statue.

Considered the Meryl Streep of France, Huppert has appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows and has earned more Cesar Award nominations, France’s version of the Oscars, than any other actress.

Now, at 63, she has received her first Academy Award nomination, for her role as a fierce rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s French-language thriller, “Elle.” Having already won a Golden Globe Award for her performance, Huppert is considered a front-runner in the best actress category, along with Emma Stone of “La La Land.”

In “Elle,” Huppert plays Michele, a successful businesswoman who cultivates an intimate relationship with the man who has raped her in the film’s first scene — and ultimately exacts her own brand of revenge.

Huppert had already read the book upon which the movie is based, Philippe Djian’s “Oh…,” before director Verhoeven came calling about “Elle” two years ago.

“Immediately I intuited that Michele would be a great film character,” Huppert said while sipping tea and nibbling bread. “She is not a typical victim, nor is she in any way sentimental.  At the same time, she is not a [clichéd] sort of avenger. She is not so easy to define.  But she is true to herself.”

Michele does not passively submit to violence or feelings of personal guilt: “She is fearless, and she lives in a way that normally men would do,” Huppert said. “Even when she buys a weapon, she almost buys it like it is a bottle of perfume.”

Verhoeven has said he initially hoped to make “Elle” in English, but changed his mind when a number of A-list American actresses turned down the role as too amoral. The director instead decided to hire Huppert, who was passionate about the project, and to shoot the movie in France.

“I don’t have any morals,” Huppert quipped of why Verhoeven chose her for the part.

Verhoeven was perhaps prompted by Huppert’s formidable reputation for portraying characters living on a razor’s edge. She played a homicidal prostitute in “Violette” (1978), for example, and a woman involved in a sadomasochistic affair and genital self-mutilation in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” (2001). Her character in “Elle” attempts in one scene to seduce her rapist and in another reveals that she slept with her best friend’s husband because “I wanted to get laid.”

Djian told Huppert that he wrote the book’s character of Michele with her in mind. But the actress insists that she doesn’t see these kinds of characters as provocative.

“And I don’t mean to be provocative by saying that — I mean it,” she said. “They are just characters seeking their own kind of truth. I think when you watch these films, and obviously in the case of ‘Elle,’ these women have been through difficult things.  You feel like they are survivors.”

Huppert’s father, Raymond, was a survivor of a very different sort. Born to Jewish parents from Slovakia and Alsace-Lorraine, he spent the Holocaust in hiding in North Africa.  Raymond married Huppert’s French-Catholic mother, Annick, during the occupation, but he never converted to her religion. He lost a number of relatives to the Nazis, and spoke often to Isabelle of his wartime experiences.

But of what ordeals he endured, the famously private Huppert declined to elaborate. She will say, however, that she was raised Catholic, but identifies as half-Jewish. “That’s what I am, of course,” she said.

And when she played the role of a woman who is interred in a French deportation camp in Diane Kurys’ “Entre Nous” (1983), Huppert recalled, she did not need to research the period. “I knew a lot already about my family’s journey — if I can call that a journey — during the war,” she explained with a rueful laugh.

Huppert, who is married to producer Ronald Chammah, a Lebanese-born Jew with whom she has three children, lit up as she described visiting Israel four times over the years, often for screenings of her films. “I think it is a wonderful country; I loved it,” she said.

The actress also is a fan of Israeli cinema; she cited her admiration for the late Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz as well as director Amos Gitai, with whom she is working on a film project.

Over Huppert’s almost 50-year career, she also has worked with other esteemed directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and David O. Russell.

She said she has admired Verhoeven since seeing his controversial film “Turkish Delight” in the 1970s. Because the movie was then regarded as overly sexual, Huppert said, she had to watch it “at a semi-porno theater.” “It reflected the sexual freedom of the time,” she recalled.  “Although now it doesn’t seem so shocking.”

Some critics have labeled Verhoeven’s depictions of women in films such as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” as misogynistic, but Huppert disagrees. “If he was misogynistic, I would have resented that as a performing actress and I would not have been in his film,” she said. Instead, “I really felt his complicity, and such a sense of protection from him.”

Huppert’s own exploration of her character came largely as the camera was rolling, when she responded to scenes with pure instinct, she said. And no, the rape scenes were not traumatic to perform, she added; some of her previous characters have endured worse. But she did characterize them as “very technical, very physical.”

Nor does Huppert believe that “Elle” in any way glorifies or justifies rape. “There is a revenge,” she said. “And no matter what Michele does to make that revenge happen, she certainly doesn’t feel sorry for it.

“The movie urges people to explore the mechanics of violence — where violence comes from in general, and how it sometimes mixes with desire.”

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