Isabelle Huppert makes Verhoeven’s twisted film work

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre
December 15-18

Meeting Isabelle Huppert in person is a notch awkward. Anyone who’s followed her career has seen her in very compromising situations (The Piano Teacher), completely debauched (The Ceremony) and in the midst of severe emotional turmoil (White Material, Louder than Bombs). Not surprisingly, Huppert is guarded and stern. With a little prodding though, a dry sense of humour and self-deprecation come to the surface.

The French actress is currently touted as potential Oscar nominee for her extraordinary performance in Elle, although it would hardly be a surprise if she’s recognized for her starring role in Things to Come.

Directed by perennial provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Robocop), Elle is the rare genre amalgamation that works, spearheaded by a complex female protagonist. The credits haven’t finished rolling when Michele (Huppert) is raped at home by an intruder. Reporting the attack is low in her list of priorities: her son is about to move in with his pregnant girlfriend even though he may not be the baby’s father, her videogame company is developing a product that could make or break her business, and her long-time jailed father is up for parole.

You would think Michele is on the edge, but she remains in control and more together than everyone else around her. In fact, the idea of being powerless becomes a thrilling one.

And since this is a Verhoeven film, you can figure out where this is going. Somewhere twisted.

A layered mystery with a bit of black comedy, Elle is very wrong in the best possible way. And a somewhat restrained Verhoeven turns out to be as good as his most debauched self, thanks in large part to Huppert’s bravura performance.

I talked to the so-called ‘French Meryl Streep’ at the latest Toronto Film Festival. Huppert was in the mind of Oh… author Philippe Dijan, upon whose novel Elle is based, but the role only came back to her after Verhoeven failed to get the film made in the U.S. (unsurprisingly).

Do you need to connect with a character to play them? If so, how do you connect with Michele?

Yes and no. No, in the sense that this character has nothing to do with me. I’m not a woman of power; I don’t have to face the same kind of aggression. Also, she is fearless: I would never live in a big house in the suburbs of Paris by myself, especially after what happens to her. I’m afraid of everything. But I can relate to the fact she doesn’t want to be a victim and wants to take control.

Did you enjoy working with Paul Verhoeven?

I’ve always been an admirer. He has the capacity to disturb you and make you think. There’s a great deal of irony in his movies, which creates a distance: Verhoeven is never sentimental or too psychological, but there is always an effort to understand human behaviour. I also like how he borrows from so many different places: at times you are in a Hitchcock thriller, a psychological study, a comedy, and, at the end of the day, you are in none of them, but in a Paul Verhoeven film.

Paul Verhoeven said he put a lot of confidence in you to build the character of Michele because he didn’t want the film to feel as if told from a male perspective.

Yes, but I never believed the role was a male fantasy. Michele is halfway between a victim and a James Bond-ish avenger. This in-between space is a very feminine one and the exploration of this area makes the character an interesting one.

You’re often described as a “brave actress”. How do you take this characterization?

This impression comes from a few of the films I’ve made, not all of them. I do comedies once in a while. But the most significant ones happen to be great roles. They may be scary at first sight, but they are just explorations of the female psyche. All the great writers do the same, but since movies are more emotional, it’s more difficult to get people to accept such explorations. I never felt braver because it’s nice to do these roles.

You make four to eight movies a year. What drives you?

I like acting! It’s very easy for me to act. Stage work is more difficult. In fact, I’m on my way to New York where I’m doing a French play for a week, Phaedra [author’s note: It was a smashing success, although the reviews weren’t kind]. If I have the opportunity to work with wonderful people, I don’t see why would I turn them down.