Isabelle Huppert

by Emanuel Levy January 5, 2017
Isabelle Huppert

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In Paul Verhoeven's Elle, an original, provocative, and disturbing movie about rape, Isabelle Huppert renders a brilliant performance. Dominating the film from first scene to last, she plays a meaty and flashy role that allows her to display the entire gamut of emotions, based on an incredible range of skills.

Huppert has already won numerous awards, including Best Actress from the N.Y. and L.A. Film Critics Associations. A darkly humorous tale of sexual politics, Elle centers on one complex, aggressive and dominant businesswoman, Michele, as she deals in her own way with the controversial issue of rape. Elle is also a comeback for the Dutch-born director Verhoeven, the only director I know of who shows the interface between sex and violence to the point where his movies – a prime example is Basic Instinct – can be described as both violently sexy and sexually violent.

This is the first collaboration between Huppert and Verhoeven and the admiration seems mutual. Says the actress: “He possesses a sense of rhythm and movement, and he doesn’t hesitate to blur the line without wondering whether he’s making a portrait of a woman, a snapshot of society, or a genre thriller.” Appearing in every scene of the film, which smoothly changes tone from one setting to another, and from one interaction to another, Huppert dominates the saga with a bold and fearless performance. She is so perfectly cast that it's hard to imagine any other actress playing this demanding role in such a subtle, multi-nuanced mode.

Elle represents Huppert’s most fully realized performance since The Piano Teacher, in which she also excelled in playing a tough and demanding part, a femme driven by bizarre, even perverse sexual desire. It’s hard to think of any another French actress – not even Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, all fantastic and beautiful performers – who have dissected the erotic desires and sexual mores of modern-contemporary women as deeply and thoroughly as Huppert had in her extraordinary forty-year screen career!

Huppert, who strangely enough has never been nominated for an Oscar, was singled out twice with juried awards at the Cannes Film Fest. In 1978, she won the Best Actress for Claude Chabrol's Violette Noziere, and in 2001 she received the kudo for The Piano Teacher. Michael Haneke, who directed Huppert twice, in The Piano Teacher and in Hour of the Wolf, has noted in a 2001 interview: "Isabelle has such professionalism, the way she is able to represent suffering. At one end, you have the extreme of her suffering, and then you have her icy intellectualism. No other actor can combine the two." Haneke's observation applies to her performance in Elle, in which she adds to the two aforementioned qualities a nasty black humor.

"I was never reluctant to do it, I never saw any problem. I thought she was a kind of post-feminist character. Very quietly, very sure of herself, she does what she does," Huppert says. “She never falls or fails. She is many and varied: cynical, generous, endearing, cold, commendable, independent, dependent, perspicacious. She is anything but sentimental; she is pummeled by events, but she doesn’t crack. That’s the point of the character – her strength, originality and modernity.”

Most importantly, Michelle never behaves like a victim, or feels guilty, though she has many reasons to feel so: She is the daughter of a mass murderer father and then subject of repeated rapes. “In movies, even when they have strong women, they always have that hanging over them: the temptation to veer toward emotion, which turns out to be phony, a slightly gooey sentimentalism.”

For the actress it's not ever important whether her character is doing the right thing or is sympathetic. “She's a really amoral character, although, I think the film's not amoral, but she reacts in a way that might seem amoral." As for the four rapes in the film, she says “the process was very technical, because we rehearsed a lot. We always knew that those scenes might be more difficult to watch for the spectator than to do for the actor.”

At 63, Huppert, one of the most accomplished actresses in world cinema, is at the prime of her game, adding yet another panel to what's already an illustrious career.