After her most incendiary role to date in Elle, Isabelle Huppert talks poise, provocation and vividly remaking on-screen femininity in her image
There’s a photograph of Isabelle Huppert that I cannot get out of my head.
It was taken at the 1988 Belfort Film Festival, where Huppert was showing her film Milan Noir, as directed by her future husband, Ronald Chammah.
In it, Huppert is seated in a movie theatre surrounded by other people. They all face the screen, but, strikingly, she looks straight at the camera. Here, the actress has become audience, but she is still the centre, confronting us with a stare at once curious and impenetrable. She’s luminous.
We’ve seen this silent, confronting face before. In The Piano Teacher (2001), Erika Kohut impassively watches as her student reads her a letter detailing the rules of the masochistic game she wants him to play. In the final shot of Huppert’s 1977 breakout film The Lacemaker, the heartbroken Pomme turns to the camera and looks back at us, gravely, for a beat too long. And in this year’s Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s taboo-busting rape-revenge thriller, Huppert’s performance has the power to distil irreconcilable actions and motives in a single, devastating glance.
In a Paris studio on the day of her Dazed shoot, I’m confronted by le regard in person. On set, Huppert moves in an instant from commanding pose to photographer’s laptop. “Non”, “Oui”, “Pas mal,” she quips, not unkindly, considering each image on the screen. Her allure is everything to do with her self-assurance.
“I’m the least courageous person in the world,” Huppert laughs, a little later. “I’m not particularly a fearless person, but with acting and choosing films, of course, that is what it’s about.” We’re sitting upstairs to ‘do the interview’, and my own nerves are soon quashed. No famed froideur, here – Huppert laughs easily and speaks gaily, warming up quickly much like today’s spring day in Paris. She possesses a dandyish loucheness that is almost masculine – leaning one elbow against the make-up table, pouting slightly whenever she considers an answer. At one point, she moves a bangle to the side decisively, like a chess piece (possibly to prevent my breaking it, a quietly motherly gesture).
Having starred in over 100 films, received more César nominations than any other actress, and played muse to the century’s most storied directors (Haneke, Godard, Breillat, Chabrol and Assayas, to name a few), the 64-year-old is enjoying a thrilling new moment in 2017, thanks chiefly to her career-defining performance in Elle. In the film, Huppert plays Michèle, an imperious and successful video games company CEO who, in the opening scene, is raped in her own home by a masked intruder. Refusing to be a victim, she instead opts for an acutely psychological – and, ultimately, violent – revenge like none other seen on screen. As revelations about Michèle’s personal history and relationships unfold – she is the publicly known daughter of an infamous serial killer, she is having an affair with her best friend’s spouse – we begin to attribute her off-kilter moral compass to a shadow that has been there since before the rape. She suffers, but she is vicious. She is hurt, but she has the capacity to cause hurt. So how do we talk about Elle? This ‘rape-revenge black comedy’ has prompted a crisis in genre, and nobody quite knows. Nobody, that is, except Isabelle Huppert.
“It’s absolutely a revenge”, she says definitively. “Everything can be read in different ways. I wouldn’t say it’s shocking, it’s just disturbing. Of course, it’s about a woman who is raped and then (pursues) a really weird and unpredictable relationship with her rapist. But it’s a lot more than that, because it’s (also) a portrait of this woman’s life.”
On the surface, much of the film’s conflict arises from the actions of men: her eventually unmasked rapist, her jailed serial-killer father and, less extreme but still important, her disappointment of a son with his own violent urges. But the true revelation of the film is the depiction of the fullness of Michèle’s life as a woman, as anchored in her relationship with her mother, her female friendships and, of course, those conversations that any woman must constantly have with herself.
“You see her as a woman,” says Huppert emphatically. “As a very solitary woman – that’s what struck me in the first place. But you also see her as a daughter, a mother. The reason she’s attractive is that she’s a combination of something very bold and very daring, but on the other hand, more like a survivor. If it was a one-dimensional character, it wouldn’t be interesting. It’s like we turn around her, in 360 degrees.”
“I’m not particularly a fearless person, but with acting and choosing films, of course, that is what it’s about” — Isabelle Huppert
When you subtract Verhoeven’s bombastic theatricals – his unrelenting “rollercoaster”, as Huppert puts it – Michèle is, in many ways, simply a woman making her way in the world. “And that’s what makes it more touching,” she describes. “It’s not sentimental, it’s psychological. It’s the psychological (kind of) emotion... very deep and rooted.” That women must devote a lot of their time handling the insecurities, desires and needs of the men in their life is a fact; because that fact so rarely centres the female lives we see on screen, it feels empowering when it does. “Men are kind of weak and certainly very fragile, too,” Huppert says of Elle’s take. “(But) there is no contempt for men. Women are shown in a certain way, and men are shown in a certain way as well. We don’t even know that there is an attraction (between Michèle and her assailant) – that’s not the point.”
Having starred in so many movies, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Huppert isn’t fussy; can prolific really mean particular? But it’s clear she only takes on roles that speak to her on the level of instinct, and allow her to make her own connections. In Elle’s case, not only was she a fan of the film’s source material (Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel Oh...) already, she felt instinctively it was made for the screen. “I read the book a long time ago,” she says. “I thought it was very cinematographic, the kind of character you rarely see on screen. In fact, there was so much connection between Verhoeven and Djian’s universes. Something very bold, very dry, and a kind of humanistic point of view on our world and our society.”
“Men are kind of weak and certainly very fragile (in Elle). But there is no contempt for men” — Isabelle Huppert
Much has been made of Huppert’s unusually active role in the creation of her characters, crossing over into a kind of authorship (Cahiers du Cinéma once wrote of her as an “actress metamorphosed with director”). This ‘auteurship’ is perhaps why we can draw connections between Huppert’s characters in entirely different projects, her choices speaking to her own concerns of what needs to be worked out on film. Her role as Nathalie in Things to Come (2016), Mia Hansen-Løve’s quietly affecting drama about an academic whose husband leaves her for another woman, also placed a microscope on the reality of many women’s experience today. “Of course, there are great similarities between each woman,” admits Huppert. “They don’t want to be victims. They try to go their own ways, amid certain events. Of course, it’s nothing compared to (what Michèle in Elle) goes through, (but Nathalie) goes through a series of events that might happen to any woman in the world. It’s the way she puts herself back together.”
Speaking of connections; what about those cats? Elle opens with a close-up of Michèle’s housecat as it witnesses the rape; in Things to Come, Nathalie begrudgingly takes in her mother’s cat when she passes. And as Woman Crush Wednesdays keep throwing up photographs of a wide-eyed, befreckled Huppert posing with various felines in her youth, I have to ask. “Yes, I’m a cat person,” she says. “I like cats because they don’t bother me, even though I don’t have such a good relationship with my cat. Because she’s very competitive and she doesn’t really like women very much. But that’s a different story, she prefers my sons.” Voilà.
While much has been made of the post-feminism of Elle, Huppert-led dramas have been a byword for questioning what it means to be a woman on-screen ever since she first burst into the public consciousness in 1971. The youngest of five children brought up in the suburbs of Paris, she was encouraged to act from an early age by her mother. Huppert feels lucky to have portrayed women with a vivid inner life from the very beginning. “I started very young – but, very young, I found the greatest opportunities. I’m talking about The Lacemaker, I’m talking about Violette (Nozière, Claude Chabrol’s 1978 thriller which landed Huppert a best actor award at Cannes), which were the two big breaks for me. So very, very quickly I was able to put my stamp on film and really make a statement of my way of acting, and who I was on screen,” she says.
“I like cats because they don’t bother me, even though I don’t have such a good relationship with my cat.. She’s very competitive and doesn’t like women very much” — Isabelle Huppert
“Not only that, but (it was) the kind of material that wouldn’t necessarily go to an actress as young as I was, because usually when you’re so young, you play more to seduction or something. But I was able to do these roles with greater intensity and depth, which allowed me to (find out) what I was capable of.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – the female strength that has always been at the core of her projects, Huppert refuses anything but a nuanced appraisal of the industry’s pervasive sexism. Between 2007 and 2014, according to research by SoCal University, women made up only 30·2 per cent of speaking or named characters in the 700 top-grossing fictional films in the USA. Huppert recognises the imbalance. “Salary could be improved,” she admits. “That’s the surface of the iceberg which tells a lot about what is submerged... for all women in the industry and everywhere in the world in general.” In fact, for Huppert, conversations about redressing the cinematic gender balance too often take the narrow view. “You have so many other domains where male domination is worse,” she says. And besides, that casting call for a very attractive and seductive-looking female that only 18-25 year olds can apply for anyway? “Unfortunately that does not only come from men, it comes from women as well.”
When it came to collecting her best actress award for Elle at the Golden Globes in January, Huppert preferred to mount a different kind of platform. Tearfully accepting her statuette, she thanked Paul Verhoeven (“for being what you are, and for letting me be what I am”) and ended with a clarion call to the international community to “not expect cinema to set up walls and borders”. At the Academy Awards the following month, The Salesman won for best foreign language film, but Iranian director Asghar Farhadi declined to attend due to Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority nations. “I meant what it meant,” Huppert recalls of her speech. “You have people from all over the world working together and exchanging points of view from one culture to the other. Art has no borders, and cinema, among other arts, has no border.”
“Art has no borders, and cinema, among other arts, has no border” — Isabelle Huppert
Crossing off event after event, Huppert’s daring approach to style should have surprised no one this awards season. At Cannes in 2001, she appeared practically make-up-free on the red carpet with a tattoo across her back and arms, quoting the Romanian writer Emil Cioran, “God can thank Bach because Bach is the proof of God’s existence” (a far cry from her first visit in 1978 for Violette Nozière, when security guards reportedly tried to bar her entry from the ceremony as they did not know who she was). More recently, she has favoured “Armani, Dior, Chloé” (she is excited for Clare Waight Keller’s imminent move to Givenchy) and namechecks Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton as “really a talented visionary”.
Lighting up the internet as much as those ‘on my way to steal your man’ red carpet shots (picture Huppert at this year’s Oscars, in glittering Armani Privé, emanating hand-on-hip female power) has been the actress’s blossoming friendship with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. “We kept meeting each other from the beginning,” she says, citing the circuit from the Toronto Film Festival right through to the Academy Awards – all documented via selfies on Jenkins’ and, recently, Huppert’s Instagram accounts. “The same with (Manchester by the Sea director) Kenny Lonergan. We became a really nice group of people, always together from one place to the other. That was nice.”
She loves Moonlight, Jenkins’ deft portrayal of black LGBT masculinity, as a friend, then, but also as a viewer. “It’s very sensitive, and the pace of the film is unusual for an American movie,” she says. “The subject of the film itself is daring and you don’t hear this kind of story so often.” As caught on camera on the night, Huppert’s open-mouthed reaction shot to the best picture mix-up was widely considered priceless. “Ah, oui? I didn’t see that. Everybody was shocked, at first we all thought that some extra cinematography was happening or something!”
Post-Academy Awards, Huppert went straight into shooting her next movie, Eva, by Benoît Jacquot (a remake of Joseph Losey’s 1962 drama about a money-loving Frenchwoman who seduces a young writer). In fact, she has seven movies slated for release, most of which further stamp her taste for roles which explore frustrated familial dynamics. In Barrage, which premiered at February’s Berlinale, she even stars opposite her real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah. Then there’s Mrs Hyde, in which Huppert plays a timid high-school teacher who, when struck by lightning, wakes up with dangerous new powers. It’s not a superhero movie, says Huppert, but “a comedy”. (From her all-singing-all- dancing turn as an erratic, sexually frustrated aunt in 2002’s 8 Femmes, to the slightly demonic ‘existential detective’ in I Heart Huckabees (2004), it’s worth pointing out that Huppert is also an underrated genius of comic timing.)
“That’s what movies are made for, to take the audience and transport them into this woman’s psyche, or anybody’s psyche, and try to make them understand” — Isabelle Huppert
When I point out that television is the breeding ground du jour for complex characterisations anchored by leading women, Huppert doesn’t rule it out. “Why not? More and more actors do it, among the greatest – so, yes, I’d be more than happy to have that experience,” she enthuses. “(It’s) a different approach to time, a different rhythm than movies.”
She is also reuniting with Michael Haneke for the first time since 2012’s Amour, on Happy End. Set in and around Calais, it promises to be a simple ‘refugee’ drama in the same way that Elle was a ‘simple’ revenge narrative. “We shot in the north of France, not far from where the migrants are,” says Huppert. “But I keep saying that it’s not about the migrants, because it’s about this family, their relationships, their little tensions and fights, which make them deaf and blind to a certain political situation, a certain social situation. But of course, this situation is going to jump at their faces at the end of the film.” And at ours, no doubt.
To date, Huppert has played a teenage girl who murders her sexual conquests (Violette Nozière), a manipulative, incestuous mother (Ma Mère) and, of course, that sadomasochistic piano teacher (as the late critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Haneke’s masterpiece at the time, “Huppert often plays repressed, closed-off, sexually alert women”). But as much as is made of Huppert’s boundary-pushing oeuvre, it’s clear that, for her, to do boring films simply isn’t an option. She’s bemused by how much is made of her so-called risk-taking; as an actress, how could she do anything but? “It’s strange, when you’re (known for) complex characters and people think that you are ‘fearless’. For me, it’s easier to do these complex roles than more straightforward ones. Others are more difficult, in a way, either because they’re boring, or because they’re completely out of reality for me.”
“The only interest for me is to be close to what I think is a certain reality,” she continues. “Not about what people are, or about what we think people should be, but more to approach a certain truth of what is in people’s inner psyches. That’s what movies are made for, to take the audience and transport them into this woman’s psyche, or anybody’s psyche, and try to make them understand.”
At one point in Elle, Michèle makes what feels like a winking reference to Huppert’s other women, who always seem to be waiting in the wings of any single performance. “Nutjobs, I can handle,” she quips. “My speciality.”
“I don’t think it gives a definitive answer to anything,” muses Huppert of the movie that, after a lifetime of ‘career-defining’ performances, has given it new urgency all over again. “Just a lot of questioning.” As always, she looks like she knows something the rest of us don’t.
Hair Gilles Degivry at Artlist, make-up Carole Lasnier at B Agency, set design Azzedine Saleck, prop stylist Jacques Fivel, photography assistant Lancelot Pompepui, styling assistant Camille Marchand, production Merwen Belkeddar, Juliette David at Iconoclast Image