Isabelle Huppert on How She Tackles Difficult Roles Like ‘Elle’

Peter Debruge
Variety

Whereas every other celebrity who visited the sixth-floor Variety Studio at the Toronto Film Festival arrived by elevator, Isabelle Huppert took the stairs — which says a lot about the French star. With a genuine shot at an Oscar nod this year for her daring role in Sony Pictures Classics’ “Elle,” the 63-year-old — who has more nominations for France’s top award, the César, than any other actress (15) — never takes the easy route.

While many actors run from provocative, erotic, or otherwise risqué roles, Huppert is drawn to them — from her early, sexy career turns in  “Going Places” and “Coup de torchon” to her most recent Cannes sensation, “Elle,” in which she plays the co-founder of a successful video-game company who reacts in an unexpected way after she is violently raped. At first, the character goes on with her life as if nothing had happened; then, after discovering the identity of her attacker, she seems excited to continue the aggressive sex — before finally taking matters into her own hands.

Paraphrasing her own 2001 acceptance speech from Cannes, when she won her second best-actress prize, for “The Piano Teacher,” Huppert says: “Certain roles might scare you. You think that they might take everything from you. You would be wrong, because those are the ones that give you the most.”

As scandalous as her part in “The Piano Teacher” was, “Elle” — debuting Nov. 11 — goes even further. It takes a direct look at a topic that — due to recent controversies ranging from the past rape charges of “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker to unseemly revelations in the presidential campaign — is especially incendiary right now. All the while, her performance is earning Huppert some of the best reviews of her career.

“I knew the role could be controversial, but that’s not my problem,” she says. “What appeals to everyone isn’t necessarily what appeals to me.”

Instead, Huppert chooses her projects based on the filmmakers involved.

“I need to have absolute confidence in my director. That’s what gives me my freedom. It would be impossible to choose projects otherwise,” says the actress, who has put her faith in the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (“Passion”), Claude Chabrol (“Violette”), François Ozon (“8 Women”), and Michael Haneke (“Amour”).

“My way of choosing the films I’ve done in the United States was completely the same,” she adds. “At the end of the day, I can be proud of those directors as well: Michael Cimino, Curtis Hanson, David O. Russell, and Hal Hartley — four major directors.”

In some cases, as with Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, she committed to a project (“In Another Country”) in which there wasn’t even a script. But that’s not to say that the writing isn’t important to Huppert. In the early ’90s, she optioned Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short story “The Flood,” making the film with a little- known Ukrainian director.

In the case of “Elle,” after reading “Oh… ,” the book on which it is based, Huppert  proactively contacted the author, the popular French novelist Philippe Djian.

“He told me he had me in mind when he wrote the book, so it was no surprise that I was so attracted to the role and felt so strongly that it was for me,” says Huppert, who suggested that he consider turning it into a movie.

At her suggestion, French producer Saïd Ben Saïd bought the rights, enlisting “Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven. Huppert was excited by the idea, having admired the Dutch director’s work since “Turkish Delight,” one of the first films she saw while still in school back in 1973.

“In France, it opened in this one theater where they would never release serious films,” recalls Huppert (who now, incidentally, owns a Paris cinema, Christine 21, programmed by her son). “Everybody thought it was semi-porno, but the movie is a pure melodrama, and so touching, so moving.”

Despite Huppert’s interest, Ben Saïd initially wanted to make “Elle” in English, with an American star. He hired an American screenwriter — genre veteran David Birke (“Gacy”) — to handle the adaptation, relocating the story to New York. But no American actress wanted the part. So they brought the project back to France and humbly asked Huppert to accept the role she’d been interested in from the start.

“In retrospect,” Verhoeven says, “if Isabelle Huppert were not with us on this Earth, this movie would not have been made. You cannot measure the level that she added.”

As an example, the director points to a scene in which when the rapist returns. Huppert’s character gains control of the situation, stabbing her assailant in the hand and chasing him away. But the actress kept going, staggering and reeling in a way they hadn’t rehearsed. Watching from the sidelines, Verhoeven couldn’t bring himself to call “cut,” even though they’d already gotten what had been scripted.

“Her reaction is so heartfelt and so powerful,” he says. “I felt that what she does here is much better than the scene that we were supposed to shoot … I decided to skip the next scene entirely.”

Because Birke’s script was written with an American audience in mind, it had more structure and plotting than it might have had it been written for a French art-house release.

“What I really liked about it,” says Huppert, “was that so many things were happening to this woman: She’s got problems at work, and with her mother and her son. I think what builds such a wonderful and contemporary character is this accumulation of problems that she has to solve.”

Verhoeven, who has made a career of playing with misogynist and genre-movie clichés in such films as “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers,” focused on blocking scenes with Huppert rather than discussing the character’s motivations or trying to find Freudian explanations for her behavior. That looseness and his wry sensibility was beneficial to her performance, she says.

“What makes the role different is the sense of irony that Verhoeven literally spills all over his story, and that necessarily takes you away from being too serious about it, or from thinking there is a definitive statement about this kind of situation.

“The other thing I really liked about her,” Huppert continues, “was that she cannot anticipate how she is going to react, so the audience cannot predict what she is going to do, either. She’s neither a victim, nor does she pursue the stereotypical masculine fantasy of taking revenge.”

The character seems the opposite of the woman she plays in another film, “Things to Come,” to be released Dec. 2 by Sundance Selects. In that, Huppert is a late-
career philosophy professor. Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve wrote the part based on her mother, who was caught completely unprepared when her husband filed for divorce after 25 years of marriage.

“Mia had this idea to make this movie about two intellectuals, which is quite rare in the cinema,” says Huppert. (In a coincidence, Huppert’s daughter took philosophy classes from Hansen-Løve’s mother.)

Like “Elle,” “Things to Come” works because of the actress’s ability to humanize prickly characters while bringing a necessary ironic detachment, which prevents intense situations from becoming too heavy or depressing.

“Even in ‘The Piano Teacher,’ there are a few moments where it’s very, very funny,” Huppert says. “If you don’t put this sense of humor in films, you don’t have cinema. It was in the writing, but it’s up to the actor to extract the potential of a line to be funny. I think that’s really my contribution.”

And yet, as Verhoeven observed, the process of shooting “Elle” had been so intense for Huppert that the moment they finished the final scene, she began dancing wildly around the set, as if exorcising some kind of demon.

“With Isabelle, you have an actress who can do everything the moment she believes in the character,” Verhoeven notes. “She’s extremely audacious, and she would go to the very end of that character. It’s difficult to find a movie where she didn’t do that.”

As different as the two films are,  “Elle” and “Things to Come” see Huppert creating portraits of strong women, united by the fact that they are neither victim nor avenger. “In both cases, these are women who never fall down,” Huppert says. “They always stand up. But this is what happens in most situations in life: You cope. What other solution do you have? We move forward, no matter what, or else we go to a psychiatric hospital — and we also have movies for that.”

Related stories

Why the Diversity in Hollywood Conversation Also Needs to Include Age

Oscar Foreign-Language: 'Toni Erdmann,' 'Elle' Join War-Themed Entries From Europe

European Film Awards Announce Best Film Nominees

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter