Isabelle Huppert Knows Herself
The Oscar nominee talks about confidence, trusting Paul Verhoeven, and missing Claude Chabrol.
In Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Isabelle Huppert plays a mature fearless woman who's in charge of a major corporation. When I met Huppert in Paris during the UniFrance Film Festival, she looked exactly like her character. She wore a distinctive jacket with a chic billowy scarf, looked straight into my eyes, and confronted each question with a high level of certainty. Every gesture and pose seemed almost like a dance, ready-made for the big screen. The only explanation is simple: Huppert doesn't merely act; she becomes her characters—or rather, her characters become her. She is a woman of class and amazing confidence, with a self-awareness that's all too rare.
She became a world-cinema icon early in her career, working with Jean-Luc Godard in Passion and Claude Chabrol in Story of Women, Madame Bovary, and Violette Nozière, the latter earning Huppert her a first Best Actress award at Cannes in 1978. The second came in 2001 for her outstanding performance in The Piano Teacher, by Michael Haneke, with whom she reunited for the Oscar-lauded 2012 film Amour. Now, in addition to a Golden Globe win for Elle, a provocative thriller which hinges in part on dramatized sexual assault, Huppert also has received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. Let me introduce you, once again, to one of the greatest actresses of all time.
Artur Zaborski: Did you expect the Golden Globe?
Isabelle Huppert: I was hoping for it, but you can never expect something like this.
Zaborski: You looked very happy on the stage.
Huppert: I was very happy. The whole evening was wonderful because Paul Verhoeven got a Golden Globe for himself before, and that was great, too. So we got two, not only one.
Zaborski: How would you describe your speech?
Huppert: I hope it was clear enough to make people understand that in this film—and in most of my films, but in this film in particular—I never really felt like I was acting. I was maybe reacting, and that is an unexpected way, but I never felt like I was acting. I think that most of the time acting tends to transform reality, instead of showing reality by giving the possibility not to act. I was as true as possible. Especially in that film, where at some point I did not even think about what I was doing, because nothing was ever predictable, nothing was ever explained. I never built up a character. I wasn’t saying, 'Why does she do this?' nor all sorts of things you'd normally wonder about a character. Directors often left me completely free in that attempt to do what I want to.
Zaborski: Did you fear that Elle was a risky project?
Huppert: No, I've never felt it was risky. When I knew that Verhoeven was going to do it, I knew I was going to be in good hands. Of course I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for him or someone like him—meaning a great filmmaker, which I always believed he was. Only with a hundred percent trust and confidence you can build this film, and you can't allow yourself to be suspicious about it. Otherwise it's impossible.
Zaborski: Can you see the greatness even in a film like Showgirls?
Huppert: I can see the greatness in any of Verhoeven's films. Maybe it’s because the first of his work I saw was Turkish Delight, and that was a long time ago. I saw it by a complete accident. I had no idea who he was then. There were few people who had any idea who he was at that time, especially in France. I saw the film and I was riveted by it.
Zaborski: So, what's the greatness in Showgirls for you?
Huppert: The way he was combining several manners, you know, several genres. Like in Elle, going from the thriller to the portrait of a woman to the comedy. It is like a roller coaster, he has such an ability to go winding on a road, to go from one view to the other, and it's quite remarkable. It never locks you as an actress, nor as a person. You can start a day like a drama and end like a comedy, or the other way around. More like it starts as a comedy and ends like a drama, because if you start like a drama you rarely end like a comedy. But anyway, as an actress, it's extraordinary to be like this.
Zaborski: Did you give him any advice about the Berlin jury presidency?
Huppert: No, I don't think he needs my advice.
Zaborski: So, after so many films and so many awards, what do you look for in your films, in your work today?
Huppert: I did not even need to look for exactly what I found in the very beginning. That is because I worked with great people since the very beginning. What makes it maybe different on Elle, and even on L’avenir [a.k.a. Things To Come] too, is the fact that it is about a very strong woman in appearance. Maybe I didn't have many opportunities to portray a woman of power. She's fearless, she's solitary, she has a certain idea about herself which makes her maybe a little different from other characters I've been doing.
Zaborski: Would you be interested in a pure action film?
Huppert: I would, definitely, I wouldn't mind.
Zaborski: What kind of action film would interest you?
Huppert: I don't know, I'm not an action-film connoisseur, but any good action film would do.
Zaborski: What's your relationship with awards? Are they important for you?
Huppert: Yes, obviously—apparently they mean something to people, as it seemed from the infinite reactions I got after getting this wonderful award. I've shared awards with people. A movie is collective work, and you don't make movies by yourself, you do it with a lot of people. And that's the beauty of it, it is solitary, but it's so collective. I could only share them with those who did it.
Zaborski: Do you have a special place for your awards?
Huppert: I have to think about it... for a moment it's my suitcase because I'm just coming off a plane.
Zaborski: Paul Verhoeven wrote a book about Jesus. Was it ever a topic between you and him?
Huppert: No, it wasn't, but I think that it is in the film in a way. Even if he most of the time sets it in a very ironical way, because of the character of the neighbor who is a Catholic and she goes to mass. She watches midnight mass as I'm telling this terrible story about me being raped to my neighbor. I think that there's an idea of what's good and bad in the film. There is something quite profound and deep about what the human kind is made of. At the certain level you find this kind of questioning and integrity in the film—unexpectedly, but you do find it.
Zaborski: What's going through your mind when you're doing films like Elle?
Huppert: Nothing and everything. The way I did it is so strange. I was away for twelve weeks, all the time, from day to night. At some point, you don't even think what you do. We've never had a discussion about my character with Verhoeven, I can't even call her a 'character.' I call her 'Elle' or 'she,' but never call her a 'character.'
Huppert: Because this is such a theoretical and outside perception. I have huge confidence about myself. With great confidence about yourself, you can just ask for being yourself on the set. I don't know where I get it from, but I have it. I don't have it for anything else in the world, but when I'm on the set I have that confidence in myself. It's a little gift my life gave me.
Zaborski: Is there a character from your movies that's particularly close to you?
Huppert: All my characters are close to me, but none of them is close to me at the same time. I keep saying, 'I have nothing to do with these people,' but I do have everything to do with them. On one hand, what helps me think that I have nothing to do is that it helps to reveal how I keep a certain distance with a character, but on the other hand, it's me.
Zaborski: Do you take your characters home?
Huppert: Yes and no. I do, but I don't have enough room to take all of them and be myself.
Zaborski: Was it easy to star with a cat?
Huppert: Yes, it was very easy because it was a trained cat, believe it or not. It was heavy like an elephant and I had to carry it. When I was getting into my house at night it would spring into my arms; it did twelve times like this, because it was trained. I've never seen a trained cat before, it was so funny! In the film it appears in an opening scene. You've got a big shot of the cat, it might be Verhoeven himself watching the scene.
Zaborski: Are you curious at the end of a take to watch how it came out?
Huppert: Maybe sometimes. I have no habit of doing it. Some directors may be very reluctant about actors watching monitors. Usually I don't do it. Maybe sometimes in the beginning. But I remember clearly on Amour Michael Haneke wanted me to watch it all the time, because it was easier to explain technically what we were doing.
Zaborski: When was the last time you had an audition?
Huppert: Long time ago. I don't audition much. I know in America, for example, they would audition more, when you're already a more established actress. I've heard stories like this before. I think I've auditioned for a film I didn't do. I was asked that question in the States the other day, but I couldn't remember, and then eventually I've reminded myself. That was a very nice experience, I was way too young for that role, so it didn't happen.
Zaborski: What do you think of the struggle made by American actresses for equal payments in the film industry?
Huppert: I think it's a fair fight.I believe there should be equality everywhere around the world. If a voice can be heard more than the others, it speaks for the others, so it's good to say it. I'm sure you'll agree with me.
Zaborski: What do you think about policy these days?
Huppert: Well, you can't live without it. If you don't go to politics, politics comes to you anyway, but I don't feel like my opinion matters that much. I don't feel the need to express my opinions.
Zaborski: What do you think about Meryl Streep's speech during the Golden Globes?
Huppert: Well, I'm not American. In general, we're not in the same situation. When we are, we'll see. Hopefully we won’t.
Zaborski: Do you agree with what Meryl said?
Huppert: Yes, absolutely. She made a beautiful speech.
Zaborski: Let’s go back to your films. Before our meeting I watched Violette Nozière again, which gave you the first Golden Palm in 1978.
Huppert: I miss Claude Chabrol. I miss him as a director and as a human being. I miss so many people. But out of all I miss Chabrol more than anybody else, because he was a regular partner. We were going to make another film together. He was an amazing director.
Zaborski: How would you describe his humor?
Huppert: You could say nothing went wrong with Claude Chabrol; there was a kind of opacity behind this. It was visible in his films, he didn't like conflicts. But he could be very mean—but with sense of humor, he wouldn't spare anybody.
Zaborski: Even you?
Huppert: Especially me.
Zaborski: Are you tempted to direct a film?
Huppert: No, not really. I'm fulfilled as an actress. I feel like I manage to make such person with my roles.
Zaborski: As an actress you can jump from one movie to another much quicker.
Huppert: That's for sure. It requires much more endurance to be a director.
Zaborski: Have you ever tried to write?
Huppert: No, I'm too lazy to do that. Being an actress fits me perfectly. I can be lazy, I can do whatever I want. It's very easy for me. Theaters are more difficult, but movies are easy.
Zaborski: Any other job that you might fancy?
Huppert: No, it's too late for that.
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