Huppert breaks through with fearless audacity
Electrifying performance in “Elle” earns French actress first Oscar nod, after Golden Globes win
Isabelle Huppert has long had a reputation as one of the most fearsome and fearless actresses in the world.
There has always been something both steely and vulnerable about her screen presence, an ice queen willing to show her cracks.
Her electrifying performance in “Elle” has now earned Huppert her first Oscar nomination, following her recent win at the Golden Globes. Directed by the Dutch-born Hollywood veteran Paul Verhoeven, making his French-language debut with the film, “Elle” is an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, “Oh ...,” about a woman who becomes involved in a twisted series of power-plays on the man who raped her in her home.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the film “a masterpiece of suave perversity” while L.A. Times critic Justin Chang called Huppert’s work “masterful,” and this should come as little surprise regarding a project from the director of “Basic Instinct” and star of the sexually provocative “The Piano Teacher.”
For her part, Huppert says she never purposely seeks out roles for the controversy.
“I don’t like thinking of them as provocative roles because I don’t take them as provocative roles,” Huppert said during a recent phone call from Paris. “Of course, truth is provocative most of the time, it’s provocative to say what’s in your mind and in your heart. To live in society most of the time means to compromise. So when cinema allows a character to take you past where a person would normally compromise, I think it’s really interesting. It’s not a provocation for me.
“I think that what I take from being an actress is to learn something about myself and to say something about whoever I play,” she added. “And to make a personal statement out of this, this is what draws me to being an actress.”
When Verhoeven was putting the project together, he was initially looking to set it in the United States and cast an American actress in the lead role.
When he could not find anyone willing to take on the part, it eventually found its way to Huppert and being set in Paris. Now, of course, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.
“First of all it’s talent. Let’s just take the shortcut. This is an extremely talented actress,” Verhoeven said. “And in her head there is no fear. There is audacity about everything. If she feels she can connect with the character, she doesn’t care about any moral inhibitions and certainly doesn’t care what people will think about it.
“It is the performance of Isabelle Huppert, who makes this character, this kind of strange character, authentic,” he continued. “Even if you don’t follow her precisely in her actions, if you might disagree with the steps she takes in her life, you always feel in the movie that this character could do that. And I think that’s what Isabelle brought to the movie, that you believe it even when you disagree.”
Little more than a day after her Oscar nomination, Huppert was also nominated for the role at France’s César awards, where she is already the most nominated actress of all time. (The film received a leading 11 nominations overall in France, including best picture and director.)
Huppert also acknowledges that her commanding performance in “Elle” feels in some ways like a summation of her career, allowing her to be strong and fragile, sensual and cerebral.
“The role is so complete. In one role I’m playing many of the roles I’ve done before, except maybe something (new) that belongs to that role that wasn’t in previous films,” said Huppert. “The role is so complex, so many layers, so many situations. She is defined not only by her sexual life, which is of course very present in the film because of her desire and this very peculiar attraction to this man. But she is also defined as a mother, a daughter, as an ex-wife and as a woman of power because she runs this video game company.
“So there are multiple facets to the character, which makes it so you can turn her around, over and over and over and at the end of the day you still have a mystery,” she added. “And the mystery she has is the mystery that belongs to anybody in life, everybody has something that you can’t really explain or that you might not want to explain.”
Isabelle Huppert as Michele in a scene from the movie “Elle.” The role has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress.