The critically acclaimed thriller Elle gifted French actress Isabelle Huppert with three firsts in her long, varied career. It was her first film with director Paul Verhoeven, the wily mind behind such brash cinematic provocations as RoboCop and Starship Troopers. And playing Elle‘s central character, Michèle — a video game executive who goes to extreme lengths to find the man who raped her — also brought Huppert her first Oscar nomination, as well as her first Golden Globe win, for Best Actress. “It was very exciting,” she tells Yahoo Movies, several weeks removed from Oscar night, when she heard her name called amongst the nominees and watched Emma Stone ultimately be crowned the winner for La La Land. “Going through all the critics’ circles, the Gotham Awards, the Spirit Awards. The whole ride has been fantastic. Except for the end — I’m kidding!” With Elle now available on Blu-ray and DVD, we spoke with Huppert about working with Verhoeven and why she feels certain this controversial movie is nothing to be scared of.
When we spoke with Paul Verhoeven last year, he told us that you were instrumental in making Michèle’s strange, almost surreal journey believable. It sounded like he didn’t think anyone else could have played the part besides you. Did he express that feeling to you on set?
ISABELLE HUPPERT: No one has done the role instead of me, so it’s hard for me to tell. [Laughs] So many other people could have done it. But what is for sure is that the way Verhoeven make films — and the way he made this film in particular — gives you the feeling that only I could do it, because he [directs] in such a way that the movie evolves around the character. So it’s almost like a documentary about the person. I never felt that I was really acting; I felt I was just being. I think it’s our unusual understanding of each other that gives that element of the film.
Elle has inspired very intense reactions, both pro and con. What are your feelings about the way it has been received?
I never really felt any negative reaction [toward the film]. It felt more like people were scared of watching the film. Once people watched it, they understood that there was a lot of great integrity, and great complexity, to it.
The movie’s reputation preceded it, in a sense.
People would think, “Oh my God, we heard that there’s a scene about a rape.” But I think once they see the movie, they understand how accurate and how honest it is. I also think that’s what people really resent — that the character is so strong, but also vulnerable at the same time. The whole process is so human, and nothing to be scared of, I think.
The rape sequence is the very first scene of the film, and it’s certainly a shocking way for viewers to begin their journey.
Yeah, sure. But it goes to some kind of attempt to really understand what happened to her, as much as she wants to understand it. You get into a kind of existential quest of this woman. The rape is something that’s by no means legitimized in the film. But from that event, she wants to understand something about herself. As the story goes on, so many questions are raised. She wants to define where violence comes from, and of course, her own childhood was initiated by violence through her father’s behavior. So you come to understand so many things about the complex relationship between parents and children, as well as what it means to be a woman, what it means to be alone, what it means to be vulnerable, and what it means to be loved.
Was there any one scene that was particularly challenging to perform?
No, I never took any of it as a challenge. For me it was all kind of easy to do, you know? The most challenging work for me would be doing bad work with bad directors. That’s never happened to me! I’m far too scared to go with a bad director for a bad role. [Laughs]
You’ve frequently collaborated with director Michael Haneke in the past, and you’ll be part of his next film, Happy End, as well. What do you enjoy about working with him?
He’s like Verhoeven — they have a lot in common. Precision, obsession to detail, obsession with cinema. Great directors are only interested in cinema, nothing else. They’re not interested in psychology, they’re not interested in all this kind of bulls***, they’re only interested in cinema. I think people will be surprised by this new film. It’s being shot in the south of Cannes where the migrant situation takes place in France, and everybody has been saying, ‘Oh, we haven’t had a great deal of movies dealing with the migrants.’ I keep saying that it’s about this family who are blind and deaf to the reality of the world. But, of course, that reality is going to jump through their fences. That’s why it’s called Happy End. You’ll see — it’s going to be a surprise.
You worked with David O. Russell on I Heart Huckabees, which was a famously controversial shoot with on-set blow-ups between him and Lily Tomlin. What are your memories of that experience? [Note: Huppert appears in one of the leaked videos, sitting alongside Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman.]
Well, what can I say? This is life. It happened as it happened, so suddenly, and something that was literally sprung from the desert where we were shooting. It was very, very surprising. I love that movie. David O. Russell is an amazing director. He’s so smart, and he managed to make successful scenes out of such difficult subject matter. It’s a very personal movie. I have to say, one of the most hilarious movies I’ve ever seen is Flirting with Disaster.
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