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Isabelle Huppert: a force of nature on feminism, cats & Elle

Her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ has been lauded as her best yet – we talk to the formidable actress about her role in the ‘rape revenge drama’ that other A-listers were too scared to take on

Isabelle Huppert is having quite a moment. With an already illustrious resume (Godard, Haneke, Denis, Assayas, Meier, Ozon, Chabrol, Hansen-Løve etc), the French cinema legend has been on a red-hot streak for years, though it’s her fiery collaboration with Paul Verhoeven that’s been really turning heads. In other words, Elle is what it looks like when the greatest living actress delivers a career-defining performance.

In Elle, Huppert plays Michèle, a videogame CEO who, when raped by an intruder, refuses to be the victim; instead of calling the police, she orders takeaway sushi and gets on with her day. That’s just the first few minutes. What follows is a different kind of revenge, one that’s patient, psychological and certainly not what you’re expecting. Let’s just say there are multiple assaults, and Michèle doesn’t always object.

Such an uncompromising premise requires a professional provocateur like Verhoeven in the director’s seat. Still, when the script floated around Hollywood, A-listers rejected the role out of terror. Only Huppert said yes, and only Huppert could pull it off. So much so, it earned her a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination – not bad for a twisty, vicious, French-language psycho-thriller about a businesswoman befriending her rapist. We spoke to Isabelle Huppert about the feminism of Elle, whether Verhoeven is satirising French society, and the strange pleasures of mainstream acceptance.

Apparently several Hollywood actresses turned down Elle because the subject matter scared them off. Have you been seeing them at awards ceremonies?

Isabelle Huppert: I don’t know those personal details! There’s so many amazing American actresses, they would have finally found a great one to do it. But I read the book, which anybody in America that was offered the role had not. It might be different when you read a script like this for the first time. The context was different for me. It made it completely natural for me to be willing to do the role. I’m very happy that Paul finally decided to do the movie in France, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you about it.

With Showgirls and Starship Troopers, Paul was making fun of American society. Is Elle satirising French culture in any way?

Isabelle Huppert: In a way, he is. He always brings the truth out of any situation, any culture. That’s his manner. I’ve read a number of times that this story is so French because of those big meal scenes. So I said, “Does anybody in other countries have a Christmas meal?” Maybe not everybody has a Christmas meal with all these things happening around the table – and also, beneath the table.

Some critics have used the word “acteurism” to describe your performance, because it often feels like it’s you, not the director, leading the film.

Isabelle Huppert: With a great director like Paul, you’re not leading the film, but you lead your own performance. We never discussed anything. We never discussed the character. It was all about doing it moment by moment, day by day, scene by scene. He gave me such freedom. I was like my own spectator, really discovering the scene exactly as it goes by. I would have been very embarrassed if Paul had sat me down and made me answer questions. No, he just let me do it.

Your characters in Elle and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come share a lot of parallels – not wanting to be a victim, a mother’s funeral, a symbolic cat, a Christmas meal, and so on. Is that a coincidence? Or the kind of part you’re interested in or play particularly well?

Isabelle Huppert: It could be, because I’m playing the two characters, so it accentuates similarities between the two roles. But the events which happen to them are completely different – in one case it’s a rape; in the other, it’s the husband leaving and the mother dying.

Still, yes, there are obvious objective similarities, like both films have crazy mothers and cats. In Elle, the cat is more like a silent witness. You have this shot of the cat at the beginning. It immediately casts a certain light to the film. Maybe it’s Verhoeven’s look, himself – this witness. Someone is witnessing the rape. It creates a strange atmosphere.

“The cat is very important. Then they’re two women not willing to be victims. They’re constantly on the move. The sense of irony is very similar. And in both cases, they’re true to themselves” – Isabelle Huppert

So, the cat is very important. Then they’re two women not willing to be victims. They’re constantly on the move. The sense of irony is very similar. And in both cases, they’re true to themselves, and both characters invite you to understand the complexity of being a woman. It means enjoying a certain empowerment, and as a consequence, also having to face certain men’s behaviours – I’m not talking about the rapist, but everyone around her. She lives alone. She’s strong, as a man would be in a classical pattern – a man normally wouldn’t be afraid to live alone in a big house. She’s not a man; she’s a woman.

So what Verhoeven does very well is to blur all the borders between men and women. She’s a woman, but she lives like a man. The men are weaker. It’s interesting, because things have changed. The lines are moving constantly. Men and women have to define themselves to one another with different objective notions.

Are you surprised there’s been no controversy with Elle? With Paul’s films, something always happens upon the release, but Elle has gone down so well.

Isabelle Huppert: People keep telling me about the controversy, but there was no real controversy. You can’t please everybody, can you? And luckily, we don’t plan to please everybody. But on the whole, the movie has been very well-received. Most people got the film for what it is, and it comes from a very complex place. They went that far to get the film.

Is Paul a bit disappointed it didn’t get that controversy?

Isabelle Huppert: (laughs) No, I couldn’t say! Oh, that’s very tricky of you. No, I wouldn’t go that far. I can’t say there was disappointment. Even if it’s not as controversial as one could fear, it’s still a Paul Verhoeven film, no matter what.

You turned down Funny Games – yet you did The Piano Teacher a few years later, also with Michael Haneke. Would you do something like Funny Games now?

Isabelle Huppert: No. I’m not sure, actually. Funny Games was a very intellectual, theoretical experience about how violence operates onscreen, and how any representation of violence manipulates the spectator. There was no flesh; it was just the bone, and the bone was terrifying.

In most stories, there’s the flesh, and that’s what Michael Haneke wanted to denounce – the fact that, by necessity, you need the flesh to make people laugh or be scared. It was very difficult for the actors. Susanne Lothar and her husband, Ulrich Mühe, who have both unfortunately passed away, did it wonderfully. It was a huge challenge. You just had the horror of this situation. Nothing fancy about it. Compared to that, The Piano Teacher was a nice fairytale.

Will this be a new phase of your career, now you’ve got mainstream acclaim and a Golden Globe?

Isabelle Huppert: (laughs) Mainstream is always good.

And you’re on Instagram now.

Isabelle Huppert: Yes! You noticed?

Yeah, I saw your selfie with John Travolta!

Isabelle Huppert: (laughs) It’s all very new to me. I don’t know what will come out of it. Maybe nothing significant.

John Waters said his favourite performance of yours is in the leaked video of David O. Russell’s meltdown behind the scenes of I Heart Huckabees, because you’re so unfazed by the chaos.

Isabelle Huppert: When Lily Tomlin is shouting at David? Well, I was used to it. It happened like that almost every day. Not the fight between Lily and David, but the craziness was constant. I liked it, also, because he’s a great director.

Lastly, what’s it like discussing Elle now with such direct questions? Like whether it’s a “rape comedy”, if it’s feminist, and terms like that?

Isabelle Huppert: I think it’s quite feminist, in a way. I don’t think it’s a comedy. It’s a revenge film – that’s important to say, because revenge is being accomplished, even if it happens in a strange, random way. But there is a sense of punishment. It’s hard to define exactly what it is. Is it a “rape comedy”? I don’t even want to think what a “rape comedy” could be. It’s sometimes very funny, but the irony operates like a very powerful counterpoint to the gravity of the story, to the complexity of the story. It’s almost an ethical posture, to make it most of the time very funny. If it wasn’t funny, it would become emotional. And if it’s emotional, it’s immoral but in a very bad sense of the word. Now, it’s immoral in the good sense.

Elle comes out in UK cinemas on March 10