French Icon & Star Of Elle Isabelle Huppert Talks To R29

Photo: Maria Laura Antonelli/REX/Shutterstock
When Isabelle Huppert’s name was called at the Gotham Independent Film Awards last year, it took her by surprise. “I’m speechless,” she said while accepting her Best Actress award for her work in Elle. “I didn’t expect that to happen, I promise. They told me it’s an American award: ‘You’re French, and you’ll never get it’.”
But she did. And it wasn't the last time the 63-year-old Parisian made her way to a podium (although she missed out on the Best Actress Oscar to Emma Stone, she was victorious at the Independent Spirits Awards and New York Film Critics Circle). Long admired by both audiences and peers, 2017 has been a good year for Huppert.
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The critical acclaim is warranted. Her striking performance as Michèle is the beating heart of Paul Verhoeven’s latest controversial film, which features Huppert as an accomplished businesswoman who shifts her focus to tracking down – and forming a relationship with – the man who raped her. It’s a devastating piece of work, alternately heartbreaking, erotic, and comedic. Verhoeven failed to find an American actress to take on the challenging role, which is why it ended up being made in France.
That wide array of feeling is not uncommon for the lauded French actress, though. Since the start of her on-camera career in the early 1970s, Huppert has shown a willingness to engage with a multiplicity of art. Comedy, satire, drama, European auteurs, American craftsmen, from Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Amour) and David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees) to Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man For Himself) and Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate). She goes where the art takes her.
In this case that’s Los Angeles, where she was in town – away from her home in Paris – doing publicity. “I appreciate the sunny weather,” she said. When I asked how many interviews she had done that afternoon she gave a knowing smirk, then said, “I don’t even want to count.”
So we didn’t. Instead, Huppert powered through the fatigue of campaigning, and came alive – present – in her responses. We discussed the watershed year she’s having, finding freedom in art, and why – despite the accolades, acclaim, and love – she still feels replaceable in movies.
In looking at Elle, my perception is that Michèle is at the opposite end of the spectrum – emotionally, sexually – from your role in The Piano Teacher.
I don’t compare something that I do with something that I did. As an actress and as a person, The Piano Teacher is far behind me. But in a way, there is a similar quest for an idea. In both cases, there’s a strong relationship to parenthood. Although, we all have a certain perception of someone who appears to be free and economically independent and strong and everything, and of course, when you dig inside, you find – like everybody in the world – they have a mother, they have a father, they have children, they have ties, and that determines who they are. That’s also what the movie says about a human being; no matter what you look like, socially, you are also a different person on the inside, I think. A person is always an enigma, because you don’t see what is underneath, by definition. But that’s why you can never really understand someone, because you can never understand what’s inside.
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You don’t think we can ever fully understand a person?
No, you don’t understand anybody’s life. You meet somebody and you have a certain vision of him, but you don’t know exactly who he is.
Back to being free. How do you feel, the longer you’ve been alive and working?
In my work, I feel as free as possible. In my life, it’s different, because you’re never as free as you want. You wish you could be freer and freer, and that’s why you keep going, you keep seeking. To be free and not to feel obliged to any so-called pattern… that’s why I reject the idea of a character. I think the idea of a character is arbitrary and gives you limitations. A character does not exist for me. I would rather say I play a state of mind, feelings, emotions, but not a character. Because a character is completely virtual. It doesn’t exist. That’s why I feel free as an actress, though not as free as I want, because you’re always relying on people. You know, your whole life is about that. But as a person, it’s a different matter.
Do you prefer existing in the fictional worlds you create as an actress to day-to-day life?
I don’t really make a difference between acting and real life. All these borders are kind of bullshit to me. My real life is acting, so I don’t feel like I’m leaving a world. Everyone, everything you do. The way life is structured, when you work, it’s a different sense of reality; when you’re with your family, it’s all different realities. And you can always say one is more real than the other, but at the end of the day, it’s all about reality. We are still there, alive. Whether you act, whether you drink, whether you are drunk, whether you are asleep. It’s all reality.
Sticking to reality – throughout your career, you seem to give young, emerging filmmakers a chance.
Yes, that’s true.
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You’ve been a facilitator.
I did work with a certain amount of young, first-time directors. And it happens that most of them were good directors, and turned out to be important directors.
Photo: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
Huppert in May 1984
Why do you think they’re interested in your work?
They’re not more interested in my work than anyone else’s work.
That can’t be true! They make a conscious decision to put you in the film.
(Laughs) I make a conscious choice to work with people, and they make a conscious choice to work with me, and then they work with someone else in the next film. It’s not like we got married. I wish! Most of the time I work with someone in an idealised world, I wonder why they wouldn’t work with me endlessly. That’s how you fantasise your relationships to people. Next film they will do this with the same honesty and engagement to someone else.
Does that make you feel replaceable?
Of course, everybody is replaceable. Until you do something and then after you’ve done it, people think you are irreplaceable, but of course you are replaceable. There are so many people in the world, why wouldn’t you be?
You’ve had a career in film since 1971. You seem like you're pretty irreplaceable.
I’ve done what I’ve done, but I really don’t live with this perception of myself, because otherwise I think I would be sick. Less close to reality. It’s not an issue for me. I have enough questions to answer that I don’t really have to answer that question. Although, yes, if you want me to say it, life is a competition and to gain your place, you have to fight to do what you do.
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Elle is released in UK cinemas on 10th March.
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