In our second part of our Elle conversation (read our interview with director Paul Verhoeven here), actress Isabelle Huppert (La Cérémonie, Amour) speaks about the challenges inherent in bringing a character of such depth and complexity to screen. Huppert’s contribution the film is immense, and while as indicated in Part One the film almost went in an entirely different direction, its return to a Parisian setting made the casting of this titanic talent inevitable.
With celebrated roles over the last four decades, the versatile actress may be at her best with Elle, providing the protagonist with a fierce independence and reluctance to give easy or expected reactions to given situations. We spoke of bringing the character to life, about working with her fine director, and about movies that continue to drive her own passion.
How would you describe Michelle?
Isabelle Huppert: She’s a very complex person. I don’t think she analyses herself. Something happens to her and she reacts in a very unpredictable way and wants to turn it into something very different. To start with [after an assault] she orders Sushi right away which is very strange!
…which is immediately startling to our expectations.
IH: The script is very close to the novel. It’s a fantasy – more like exploring someone’s dark side to their psyche. Meanwhile you have a whole portrait of someone’s life. It takes you to her past, to her present, to her relationship with her son. So you’ve got a whole description of a complete life and it made the character very rich. I think it makes the movie very deep and complex.
Normally in fiction you would have expected reactions. And yet on the other hand it’s a pure fiction and has to be taken on as pure fiction, not to be taken on as a statement.
What’s your reaction when you first approached the novel?
IH: I just thought it was a wonderful role. I think that day by day when I was coming to set I didn’t know what I was going to do. It’s my way to do in general with acting, I think there’s nothing to predict. For me acting and doing movies is all about the present moment. The situations were strong enough and always different, so I had so many things to deal with everyday, every frame, and that made the whole role very rich. It was also the possibility for me to go nuance by nuance. I just had to follow the story, that’s all.
What was your reaction when you realized she was in fact attracted to the forces out to hurt her?
IH: I don’t think I have more reaction than what you’ve seen on screen. I don’t have any opinion about that, certainly not any judgment. The character, she takes you somewhere and I think that’s the important point of the film. She might not take you where you want or expect, situation by situation, but by the end of the movie she certainly takes you somewhere. I don’t want to reveal to much about the ending but it’s all there, not only what happens but who makes it happen. That final moment makes you go backwards like a rewind and make you rewatch the film in a different way.
She spends a lot of time seemingly fascinated rather than broken down by her circumstance.
IH: She’s been confronted by violence in her life before. She had a big, big past. When she meets this violence, because of her past she reacts not in the usual manner, she want to explore. But again it’s a pure fantasy, a novel, a fiction. Her past certainly shaped her sexuality in such a way. I mean, she’s a lonely woman. There is something in the violence that makes her react in a very sensitive way I’d say.
One difference between book and novel is that she’s a video game developer, which echoes both the “gamergate” drama and the virtualizing of violence. Did that help solidify taking the role for you?
IH: I would have taken the role no matter what, if she was working in a grocery company or no matter what! [laughs] It was certainly more telling to change her profession – it’s much more interesting, it’s much more visual, it’s more of our time and says more about how we’re surrounded by violence. It added something more contemporary to the relationship with the young men in the film.
How was working with Paul Verhoeven?
IH: It was pure joy. He’s so smart, so nice, so delicate. I feel completely in complicity with him. It was an extraordinary chemistry. He didn’t say a word to me, either negative or positive, he never really directed me, it was completely silent chemistry.
Do movies continue then to fuel your passion?
IH: I own a cinema in Paris with my son called the Action Christine, it’s one of those little repertory cinemas. It’s a wonderful old movie house with a good screen.
One advantage of having your own place is getting to screen whatever you want! What film would you choose to play?
IH: Something by Ingmar Bergman!