Over the past months, French actress Isabelle Huppert has won three major Best Actress prizes – from the Gotham Awards for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”, and from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn and New York Film Critics Circle for her performances in “Elle” and Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come.” She is a regular at the Marrakech Film Festival having received a career tribute award in 2012, and served as jury prexy in 2014. This year, she returned for the out-of-competition screening of “Elle” and to host the career tribute to helmer Verhoeven. During a round-table interview she discussed her experience on “Elle” and upcoming projects.
How did you become involved in the project, “Elle”?
I began by reading the book (the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian) which I loved and I was delighted that Verhoeven was going to direct since I felt he was the perfect match. The book is unusual, unpredictable, exciting, with many layers, ambiguity, and then Paul brought a lot of irony which was there, but less evident in the novel.
He did make some changes to the original novel. For example, in the book she runs a TV company which is changed into a video game company, which brought visual elements and allowed for more brutality taken from video games and eroticism and threat. It also creates a virtual and artificial feeling and adds something to the story
Can you relate to the character?
As much as I can to any other character and I think a lot of people can relate to her. The first thing that struck me about this character in particular is that she’s almost a prototype. She’s definitely not anyone you have met before. She is a pure invention. Not the victim. She wants to take control of what happens to her. But then she’s neither the usual avenger using typical male weapons to accomplish her revenge. because there is revenge. When I do interviews I don’t like to reveal the ending. But there is obviously punishment and revenge. But she does it in her own way. She’s halfway between being a man and woman. Curiously enough for many other reasons, she is almost like the man of the story. In that she lives by herself, she’s very fearless, a kind of lonesome cowgirl, alone in this big house, and then she buys a gun. I read somewhere that she buys a gun as if it were a bottle of perfume. It blurs all the definitions between a man and a woman which I thought was really interesting. Because she’s not a caricature of a woman who’s fighting a man and being the avenger. But on the other side she is a bit the man of the story. She is a very strong person.
How have you reacted to the recent awards that you’ve won?
I’m very happy and very surprised. I just learned about the Los Angeles award yesterday night. It was like ‘Wow!’.
Does it open up new opportunities, for example in terms of working outside France?
I have no idea. I can’t foresee my future. It’s all very new. I am always ready to work with interesting new directors and work on new projects.
In both “Elle” and “Things to Come,” there is something vulnerable in the character. Is that something you look for in a character?
Yes, it did attract me in both cases. Even in “Things to Come” what happens to this person is what happens to a lot of women, and again she doesn’t behave like a classical victim. She really turns this series of events into something more interesting. It’s very subtle. She doesn’t deny the suffering or the pain, related to a situation in which someone is leaving you, your mother is dying. But also maybe because she’s a philosophy teacher, she has enough intellectual resources in herself to turn this into something that makes her stronger. I’m hesitating to use that word because she’s not weak or strong, but she doesn’t really collapse in the way that such a situation might make you collapse. The way that philosophy is approached in the film is really interesting, because she’s an intellectual and she’s married to a philosophy teacher and the film clearly shows these intellectual people, but interestingly enough instead of taking the audience away from it, on the contrary, philosophy almost becomes a tool of sensuality, of comprehension, of transmission. The fact that she is a teacher is very important for her.
Mia Hansen is shrewd enough to turn it into something funny. Usually when a couple splits they fight over the coffee machine and in this case the fight is about books and things like that. The way that the story evolves around philosophy is interesting and very moving too. And there is a kind of melancholy. It’s not the normal happy ending.
In both films, “Elle” and “Things to Come” I would say that even though they are completely different, it’s easy to find some points of comparison: For example ,the presence of a cat! Both films have a cat. The way that Mia plays with the cat, which serves as the perfect metaphor. The relationship with the mother, like a burden. We know, but at the same time that the cat escapes in the countryside we are scared. All these contradictions. In Paul’s film someone said the cat is almost the director’s POV, impassive at the beginning. The cat just watches the rape scene, and says nothing, obviously. So in both films you have a cat and a crazy mother. Very different from the daughter. And both films have an ending in which nothing is really clear. In Paul’s film, it takes place in the cemetery which is a strange environment to end your film. In Mia’s film, there is this kind of melancholy.
Do playing such roles have an impact on your personality?
Not at all. I hope not. Of course, they make me think. But it doesn’t hurt me. A movie can entertain you and make you think. I am like a spectator in my own films.
How was your recent collaboration with Michael Haneke on “Happy End”?
I haven’t seen the finished film yet. What I can say is that it’s about a family and the story takes place not far from the immigration camp in Calais. The minute people learned that everyone said that it’s about migrants and I said that isn’t the case. It’s about its own subject, the family, a very wealthy family. As always with Haneke in the broadest sense of the word it has a strong political dimension. It’s very critical of our world and civilization and it parodies the way that some people live and the way that others live.
Can you talk about your next project, Benoit Jacquot’s “Eva”?
It’s really too early to talk about it. It’s based on the book and the film. But it’s really based primarily on the original book.
What’s the main thing you consider when you receive a script?
It depends, if it’s a director I’ve worked with before I will trust their vision. For example ,with Benoit Jacquot it will be the sixth time that we work together. In the case of “Mrs Hyde” for example, which I just finished, I worked with Serge Bozon before. He’s really a very talented French director.
Is “Mrs Hyde” about a character with a split personality?
Yes it is. I’m Madame Jekyll during the day and Mrs Hyde at night. I become this kind of evil, bad creature. It’s a coincidence that my recent projects explore these dual dimensions, in this case in a more extreme way. I think all good films explore the good and evil sides of our personalities. I like the line by Cassavetes that all good films are about love and the absence of love. I think that’s true. Even in the case of “Elle,” and certainly in the case of “Things to Come.” Most great films are about the limits between these two poles.
Is it very different to work with Michael Haneke vs. Paul Verhoeven?
No, they actually have many similarities. With Paul and myself, we never really discuss anything. We never said one word about the character because it’s the filmmaking which frames the dialogue about the character. Cinema is a language. It sets the dialogue with the director. It’s a bit the same with Haneke. I recently read some very interesting comments by Orson Welles about what he expects from an actor and it’s exactly what happened with Paul and myself. Welles said that only the filmmaking should make it possible for actor to accomplish his performance and as for the director everything that the actor does should be welcomed instead of trying to change him or her. The character, by definition, doesn’t exist. It’s up to the actor to bring the persona. That of course is the mystery of the fusion between the actor and the role. Everyone is so different. Mia Hansen-Love is so bright and talented for such a young age. In terms of character, we don’t have to explain. An actor is a grown up. We don’t need to explain. In terms of nuances. Mia intervenes a bit more, she comes up with slightly more indications. But so accurate. It never appears to be a direction. A good indication can be liberating and constructive.
Is playing a role in English more of a challenge for you?
Certainly playing a role on stage makes a big difference. In movies it certainly alters something. Sometimes it can be easier. You feel a slightly different person when you’re not working in your own language. That can be liberating at times and constraining at others.