Isabelle Huppert: 'I'm Not an Artist, I'm the Canvas'
She's made more than 100 films over 45 years, not to mention her frequent stage work, and is recognized as not only one of the best actresses to come out of France, but as one of the leading actresses in the world.
And yet, Isabelle Huppert won't call herself an artist.
"No," she says in an interview, quickly brushing off the title. "I don't think actors are artists. We use that word too much. I am an interpreter - someone's universe is being expressed through me."
OK, so are you the paintbrush?
She considers that term for a moment. "Let's say I am the canvas," she replies.
So we'll call her the canvas - and now, there's another thing we can call her: Oscar nominee. For the first time in her lengthy career, Huppert, 63, has received an Academy nod, for the much-discussed, rape-themed "Elle," by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. It's an honor many feel is long overdue, but Huppert herself seems somewhat surprised - and certainly delighted - given how difficult it is to be nominated for a foreign-language film.
"It's a huge event for the American profession, for the public, so imagine what it is for a French actress," she says. "It happens so rarely. So you have amazement. And gratitude, also."
Huppert's Oscar nod culminates a remarkable season of recognition by various critics' groups for the actress, who seems to have been informally dubbed here the "French Meryl Streep." She also won the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama for "Elle," and has been recognized for a second film, too, "Things to Come" by director Mia Hansen-Love. She doesn't quite understand why all the acclaim is coming precisely now, but she's not complaining.
"It's a mystery, when it (suddenly) seems to be your momentum, as they say," she says with a laugh. "It might be that this role is a very strong character. Maybe it pleases people to see a woman like this on screen. It could be also be the memories of all the films I've done before. I don't have any other explanation!"
But the fact that it comes for "Elle" is a particular source of satisfaction for Huppert and the film's producer, Said Ben Said, because the film is not without controversy. In fact, at one point, says Ben Said, making the film in the United States with an American actress was a strong possibility, for logistical reasons. But several actresses declined the role, scared away no doubt by the complicated rape theme. "I can understand why," the producer says. "It was a big risk to take." In fact, Ben Said ran into some resistance getting financing in Europe, too.
In the end, Huppert was the ideal actress for the role because of her unique talent for complicated, multi-layered characters, he says - not to mention her willingness to go to dark places with her characters (in Michael Haneke's 2001 "The Piano Teacher," for which she won best actress at Cannes, she played a repressed teacher who engaged in sexual self-mutilation.) And somehow, she can be strong and yet vulnerable.
"You know, the reason she is so exceptional is because she is so strong, so clever - and at the same time so fragile," Ben Said says. "It's a balance that is exceptional."
Huppert plays Michele, a hard-edged Parisian executive at a video-game company. In the shocking first scene, Michele is on her apartment floor, being raped by a masked intruder in black, as her cat watches silently.
We will learn that Michele is the daughter of a notorious killer, who massacred everyone in their neighborhood when she was a young child. Her experience with extreme violence may or may not influence what she does now, as an adult: She establishes a relationship with her attacker. But is she a victim, or is she laying a trap? Or is it something else? The film's message seems to truly be in the eye of the beholder. Is it feminist, anti-feminist, post-feminist?
Huppert says there is no message at all, really, especially about rape. "Rape is a terrible event that happens to her, and in no way is the film attempting to legitimize that," she says. "The movie speaks to where violence comes from, why we are sometimes attracted to it, what does violence awaken in her. I think the reason people relate deeply to it is that beyond the controversy, there is a great amount of integrity to the film - there is something of an almost existential quest for this woman. She obviously seeks something."
Huppert is liberated by the fact that she need not like a character that she plays. "It's really not an issue for me," she says. "I never thought that cinema has to idealize characters to make them more romantic or likable than they are. I need to have empathy. But you can have empathy for a non-likable character."
At the moment that Huppert finished shooting her final scene in "Elle" - a workplace meeting between Michele and her staff - she crumpled and fell to the ground. "It was so clear that there was an exorcism," Verhoeven told the New York Times T Magazine.
Huppert smiles, and tries to explain.
"When you finish a film, it's an explosion of emotion," she says. "In one second, you realize where you came from and where you've arrived, and you say, 'How did I DO that? If I had to do it again, it would be impossible.'"
"So yes, I lay down on the ground, in joy and relief," she says. "Just to say, 'I did it!'"