French Actress Isabelle Huppert, 63, Is Pushing The Envelope

Photo by Craig McDean

Photo by Craig McDean

There are two unexpected orgasms in “Elle,” the latest film by Paul Verhoeven, and both are achieved by Michèle, played by the French actress Isabelle Huppert as only Isabelle Huppert could play her. Michèle is a successful, no-nonsense video-game executive, daughter of a jailed serial-killer father and a sex-obsessed cougar mother, ex-wife of a failed writer, mother to a useless son and, above all, a woman who gains mastery over her rapist by finding her own pleasure in the horrifying act. If there is another actress working today who could have pulled off this role, who could have dignified, deepened and brought humor to it, I can’t think of whom it might be.

But first, let’s be clear: “Elle” does not glorify or justify rape. It does not send the message that victims shouldn’t call the police and should instead invite their rapists over for a family dinner, as Michèle does. The film, a fast-paced, genre-bending comeback for Verhoeven, the Dutch provocateur behind “Basic Instinct” and “RoboCop,” is, above all, a vehicle for Huppert to deploy everything — everything — in her formidable acting arsenal. Susan Sontag, who once called Huppert “a total artist,” said she had never met “an actor more intelligent, or a person more intelligent among actors.” When I saw “Elle,” I understood what she meant.

There is something intrinsically European in the murky, morally complicated terrain of “Elle.” Verhoeven had wanted to shoot it in Hollywood, but five or six American actresses turned down the role, probably, he thought, because the film doesn’t turn into a classic revenge narrative. That didn’t concern Huppert, an actress whose characters have dabbled in incest (“Ma Mère”) and sadomasochism, most notably in 2001 in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.” (Huppert has been called France’s Meryl Streep for her technical skill, but for all her shape-shifting, Streep’s strongest women have never gone so dark.)

What directors love about Huppert — and she prides herself on being an auteur’s actor — is her ability to convey moral complexity in the most unique ways. After being raped, Michèle eventually unmasks her attacker. When she sees the man the next day, she looks neither agitated nor surprised; she is alert and on her guard, but also calm. As Michèle, and in many other roles, Huppert can transmit self-awareness. She gives the impression of observing herself at the same time that we, the audience, are observing her. “That’s the beauty of it. She’s discovering it as she goes, and is not afraid to feel that,” Verhoeven said when we spoke. “I think there is always a mystery to her acting,” he added. “I have never seen an actor or actress add so much to the movie that was not in the script.”

Verhoeven said the last scene they shot was one in which Michèle is admonishing a roomful of her video-game company employees, almost all of them younger men. “The orgasmic convulsions,” she complains of a violent sex scene between a monster and a woman, “are way too timid.” As soon as the camera stopped rolling, Huppert collapsed to the floor, writhing as if she were shedding the character like a cocoon. It shocked everyone on set. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Verhoeven said. “It was so clear that there was an exorcism.”

In our conversation, Huppert came most alive when talking about the characters she’s played, and, in particular, the ones that go to very dark places. Roles, she said, do not change her, but she feels them passionately. “I am an actress from the roots of my hair to the tips of my toes,” she said, lifting her fingers to her head, then leaning down to touch her toes in her sandals. “I know exactly what it means to suffer for a character, to hate a character, to love a character. Although as an actress it’s completely different. You don’t suffer the same way the spectator suffers. When you suffer as an actress, you don’t suffer, you have pleasure.”

-Rachel Donadio via The New York Times Style Magazine