Isabelle Huppert on Elle, rude directors and Hollywood politics
WHEN ISABELLE HUPPERT was Oscar-nominated for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s
Elle as Michèle Leblanc, a CEO who reacts to a sexual assault in an unorthodox manner, it was — astonishingly — her first. But that gutsy, fearless turn was emblematic of an entire career, not just in the performances she’s given, but her refreshingly honest attitude in general. A bold outlook that doesn’t show any signs of dimming… On playing Michèle, Elle’s protagonist “Michèle has a mixture of strength and vulnerability. [Working with Paul] was the perfect collaboration: I did what I wanted to do on my side and he did what he wanted to do. It’s not the kind of role you can sit down and say, ‘Okay, why do you think she did this?’ I think the story speaks for itself.” On the mixed reaction to Elle “I was expecting [it to provoke people], otherwise the film would have missed its target. There is no sentimentality or sweetness in Michèle, just a coldness in the way she approaches these events. She wants to understand something about herself, about men, and about desire and violence. She wants to make an experience out of it.” On the film being labelled a “rape comedy” “I think that is a confusion. The rape is a very important matter in the film, but on the other side there is this great sense of humour. But a rape comedy? I don’t even know what it means. The film is funny because she’s funny, but it’s more ironical than funny.” On Paul Verhoeven “I’ve admired him from the very beginning of his career. I liked Turkish Delight a lot, then I saw all his big Hollywood blockbusters and I like Showgirls very much. It was rejected at the time, but everyone admits now that it’s a good film. As a director, he’s very precise — almost delicate. His films are sometimes quite brutal but he’s the complete opposite, very generous and dedicated.” On her Oscar nomination “The whole journey was very nice, all the way to the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. We didn’t expect to get all this attention and recognition, because we weren’t trying to set the film on this kind of path, but it gave it great legitimacy. I sat next to Jeff Bridges at the Oscars. I did Heaven’s Gate with him and we haven’t seen each other since.”
On starring in infamous flop Heaven’s Gate “It’s one of my greatest professional memories. Michael Cimino always said that he had to fight to cast me in it, but he had to fight over everything. It was a fight from the beginning. Of course, we wish it had been a great success, but you can’t disassociate the grandeur of the film from that rejection. Michael never really recovered from it.” On working with Otto Preminger
“[Rosebud in 1975] was an experience for me at a very early age. I played one of five girls who’d been kidnapped. Kim Cattrall was one of the other girls and we’ve remained very good friends ever since. Did I like Otto? He was very rude to everybody. Every day he’d say in a big Austrian accent, “If you’re not happy, go back to Paris.” That was his mantra. I admired him a lot. He was a great director, though that was not his best film. On The Piano Teacher’s self-stabbing scene, which took 52 takes “It didn’t bother me [doing multiple takes]. Elfriede Jelinek’s book describes the expression on my character’s face [in the scene] as being like a whinnying horse. Both Michael [Haneke, director] and I were trying to find this moment. I don’t know which take we used in the end.” On missing out on The Piano “I never auditioned for it, but Jane Campion did come to visit me. I was doing Measure For
Measure at the Odéon theatre, and she came to my dressing room and talked to me about the project. I didn’t really realise what it was. If I’d known, I would have thrown myself at her feet and begged to do it. I don’t have any regrets, though. We wouldn’t have had Holly Hunter and she was so fantastic.” On the limited opportunities in Hollywood for female filmmakers “When I’m in the States, I keep hearing about these concerns about how difficult it is [for women to make films] and how the proportion [of female filmmakers] is much lower. In France, it’s not really an issue; everybody can make films.” ELLE IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD
Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc in Elle. Below, from top to bottom: With Heaven’s Gate director Michael Cimino; 1975’s Rosebud: Joyce (Kim Cattrall), Sabine (Brigitte Ariel), Helene (Huppert) and Gertrude (Debra Berger); As tutor Erika Kohut with her pupil Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) in The Piano Teacher.