In praise of the fearless Isabelle Huppert

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 17 Oct 2016

With Things to Come and now Elle, French actor Isabelle Huppert is making a good case for being the best actor working right now. She discusses her craft at London Film Festival

Is there a better actor in the world right now than Isabelle Huppert? She’s fearless.

We’ve already had two mesmerising performances from her this year. First came Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Løve’s sublime study of a middle-age philosophy teacher (played by Huppert) whose life is in upheaval. The story has echoes in Huppert’s other knockout film of 2016, Elle, which marks the return of controversial director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Basic Instinct).

In both films Huppert dominates: she’s in practically every scene of each and she’s at her most Huppert-like. Her characters give no fucks; whatever life throws at them, they keep on going. In Hansen-Løve’s film, Huppert's character is left by her husband, dumped by her publisher and disappointed by her protégé, but she adapts and pushes on with life, one foot in front of the other.

Her character of Michéle in Verhoeven’s film is even more resilient. In the opening scene she’s brutally beaten and raped, and left in a heap on the floor with blood running down her leg. In the next she’s having a bubble bath, ordering some sushi and chastising her cat for not intervening – “you didn’t have to claw his eyes out, but scratch him at least.” Huppert’s double act with the cat she inherits in Things to Come is similarly wry.

At Elle’s UK premiere at London Film Festival, Huppert gave some fascinating insights into her craft and how she chooses her roles. A character has to “take you to some kind of emotional resolution,” she says. Otherwise, for her, there’s no point. “It has to take the audience somewhere… whatever I do, I expect that, even if it takes you to some edgy spaces and moments and situations, or whatever it is. It takes you also to somewhere where it makes you think, it moves you or it makes you laugh.” In Elle’s case, you get all three.

One audience member asks if Huppert was comfortable in exploring similar themes to those covered in Michael Haneke’s controversial psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher, for which she won the best actress award at Cannes Film Festival.

“It’s my thing, you know,” says Huppert, receiving cheers from the crowd. “I love it.” She goes on to say that she likes these type of roles because they allow her to “dig into the inconfessable parts of people.”

Speaking of the appeal of playing Michéle in Elle specifically, Huppert points to the character's “undefinable” quality. “She’s not a victim, that’s for sure. She doesn’t want to be a victim. Nothing is predictable with her. As you watch the film you really watch someone literally making up her own decisions, and making up her own life. She turns something that happens to her into something that she can take control upon. And she does it in such a way she never falls into any predictable territory.

"She’s not a victim, but neither is she some revenge girl who’s going to hunt down the guy. She’s somewhere in between, and I think in the end she’s a contemporary character, someone I would call a post-feminist character.”

Michéle is also a mystery. “The more you know about her, the less you know,” says Huppert. “As the story goes on you pull all the story threads between her past and present, her professional life, her love life, her life as a mother, her life as a daughter, and this creates a whole panorama of what a human being is made of and what brings him/her to make certain decisions. I think [Michéle] gives you a lot of questions about what a human being is, and what a woman is.”

Suffice to say, Huppert is perfect in the role, but she wasn’t Verhoeven’s first choice. Elle is based on Philippe Djian's French novel Oh..., but Verhoeven had initially hoped to shoot the film in the United States, with the Paris location flipped for Chicago or Boston. American author David Birke wrote the script for the US setting, but the explosive subject matter meant its reception across the pond wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.

“We found that there was really no appetite in the United States to cooperate with this movie,” recalls Verhoeven. “Not financially and certainly not artistically. There were five or six A-list actresses that we approached but they didn’t want to do it. It was a straight no. They didn’t like it at all. It’s clear that American actresses are more safety-oriented. They try to avoid parts that are controversial. They’re not Isabelle Huppert.”

Elle is released 24 Feb 2017