How Isabelle Huppert’s Elle Defies Hollywood Movie Norms

Image: Isabelle Huppert in Elle

Image: Isabelle Huppert in Elle

Emma Jones

Acting, Isabelle Huppert is quoted as saying, is a way of living out one‘s own insanity. Perhaps nothing she has made in forty years of working is quite as insanely good as Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh.

She plays a woman who is raped in her own home by an intruder, and plots retribution – but twistedly, finds out she is sexually attracted to her rapist. For this performance, Huppert has received unprecedented transatlantic acclaim – so far, from the Gotham, New York and Los Angeles critics circle, and the Golden Globes.

But on reading the line ‘sexually attracted to her rapist’ – it shouldn’t surprise you that Verhoeven, an international Dutch director whose past work includes Robocop, confirms that Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the project, financially or artistically – leaving him to return to France to make it, but, and crucially, allowing him to hire Isabelle Huppert.

“My only idea on why Hollywood said no is the whole idiom of it –in their hands it would have had to be a straightforward revenge film,” Verhoeven says. “Instead there’s identification, even a reaching out, towards the main character with the rapist. It’s so against the grain of American movies.”

Huppert, who has more than a hundred and thirty acting credits and who has won more than eighty awards before this Golden Globe, was possibly the only actress with the combination of emotional nuance and mesmerising sexuality that characterises Michelle, a woman that the actress describes as “a character beyond definition. She has never existed before in fiction. She’s a new type of woman and it was exciting to give life to her on screen, even if it was by pure intuition.”

“She’s the kind of character I enjoy playing – ones who suffer a little indignity, ones with moral ambiguities. I don’t play them as characters with definitions, I just play them as normal people. It’s true, I don’t bother with a character having to be sympathetic – I just want them to be true.”

Films, Huppert adds, should leave people with more questions than answers. That’s certainly true of Elle – the notion that there could be attraction despite an act of violence is certainly one that should Huppert be nominated or win an Oscar, will end up being debated widely in the English speaking media. Should it even be spoken of? And then there’s the comedy of the film. It’s not just a psychological thriller – but the actress points out that “life is not one genre. Elle is a classical human comedy in the sense that life goes from comedy to drama all in one day.”

Is it a feminist film? Rather Huppert believes Michelle is post-feminist, “ as she’s building her own behaviour. She doesn’t want to be a victim, but she’s not a revenger, taking a gun and shooting a guy. She’s the result of a man’s failure, and indeed all the male figures in Elle are failed and mediocre. In a way, she’s a new era.”

Verhoeven has said that he can’t believe he ever conceived it as an American movie, and as it’s French to its fingertips, if Elle starts provoking Anglo Saxon moral outrage should its awards run continue, you can be sure the French will shrug their shoulders. Huppert too – as long as she’s not described as the French Meryl Streep too often.

Elle will be released in the UK and Ireland in March 2017, will have a North American DVD release in February 2017.

ELECTRALaura Piety