Though it’s hard not to love Emma Stone in La La Land, the critics’ choice for best actress at last month’s Oscars was a woman with several more decades experience and no need whatsoever to be loved on screen.
Isabelle Huppert’s performance as a rape victim with an enigmatic response to her attacker, in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, is a subtle, daring, surprisingly funny and provocative tour de force – and just another day in the office for an actress who, at 63, is as fearless as ever.
Despite being pipped by Stone, it’s been an outstanding year for the Frenchwoman, with awards aplenty both for Elle and Things to Come (in which she plays another woman with a refreshing take on adversity) that have included France’s own Oscar, the César, and more significantly a Golden Globe.
“The awards I’ve been receiving show a great interest in French cinema in America, which is amazing,” she says modestly. What they actually represent is the fact that, after more than 40 years in the business, Hollywood has finally woken up to just how good she is.
Elle’s heroine, Michéle, is the latest in a catalogue of tricky and elusive characters. The daughter of an infamous psychopath, she’s grown up to become the powerful boss of a video game company. When raped, she continues with her life as though nothing has happened, while playing a cat and mouse game with the rapist.
“Michele is pummelled by events but doesn’t crack,” observes the actress. “She never behaves like a victim, even when she has every reason to – victim first of her mass murderer father and then of her rapist. But nor is she an avenger. The whole story revolves around the fact that she doesn’t act in a predictable way.”
Does it take courage to play a part like that? “No, I don’t think it needs courage. Of course to do a movie like Elle you have to be in complete complicity with the director. It’s all about mutual confidence and trust, which I had with Paul Verhoeven. Once you have that, nothing can happen to you, you just do it.”
Huppert sees similarities between the Dutchman and Michael Haneke, for whom she played a sado-masochist in The Piano Teacher, and another director unafraid of challenging decorum. “Most of the time morality in films is just to please the audience,” she asserts. “To be ‘amoral’ is just about showing things the way they are.”
In person she’s youthful and chic, amiable but with a certain reticence. Unlike the great, spontaneous roar of her countrywoman Juliette Binoche, Huppert’s expression of jollity comes as a tiny, ironic laugh at the end of a sentence.
She’s spoken of her desire for films to “speak about the reality of women’s lives,” and is quick to defend her characters. “I don’t think I give cold-blooded performances or show cold-blooded characters. I think most of them are survivors, who are beyond fragility, beyond suffering, beyond compassion.
“It’s not necessary to be likeable,” she adds, “it’s just necessary to show things as they are. And sometimes that’s disturbing.”