Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
I saw Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” the night after I saw Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come” at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. There was a striking similarity between the films, and it wasn’t just the fact that they each starred the towering French actress Isabelle Huppert. In both films, she plays a divorcée with an ailing mother, a troublesome cat and no belief in the existence of God. These women are transformed by the entrance of a younger man in their lives, albeit in extremely different ways. In the case of Nathalie, the philosophy professor in “Things to Come,” she forges a platonic friendship with a former student. Michèle, the formidable video game company executive in “Elle,” has a much more vicious plight: she is raped by a masked assailant and proceeds to hunt him down. When I spoke with Huppert over the phone, I asked if she was struck by the same similarities.
“Absolutely, and not only because I made one film after the other,” said Huppert. “Both women have a kind of confidence that prevents them from falling into the caricature of a victim or avenger, particularly in the case of Michèle, who has something to avenge. ‘Elle’ is, in its own strange way, a revenge film. The cats are also very important in both cases. They are true characters.”
During the post-film Q&A for “Things to Come” at TIFF, Huppert mentioned how the film’s recurring image of Nathalie walking—down streets, up hills, etc.—mirrored the propulsion of the film’s narrative, heading ceaselessly in the future. One could say that Huppert has a similar forward momentum in her own life, considering how she’s racked up over 100 film and television credits, not to mention 15 César award nominations (winning in 1996 for Claude Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie”).
“It’s a coincidence that the characters I play in ‘Things to Come’ and ‘Elle’ follow a similar pattern,” said Huppert. “They are always moving forward without taking the time to reflect on things. Nathalie is a bit more reflective, but Michèle has minimal emotional reactions to whatever happens to her. I thought that was a really interesting approach to the character. Nothing is going to stop these women in their movement towards the life they want to live.”
The same could be said of French director Catherine Breillat, who cast Huppert in her acclaimed 2013 film, “Abuse of Weakness,” which she had based on her own relationship with conman Christophe Rocancourt. Breillat alleged that he had taken advantage of her as she was recovering from a stroke, causing her to lose a great deal of money.
“I’ve known Catherine for a very long time, and she’s a close friend of mine,” said Huppert. “Making that film was a strange experience. Not only was I playing Catherine, I was playing her under the circumstances of her accident. But she’s so strong and so creative that she was able to turn it into something cinematic. I was completely with her in that attempt to create fiction from a very personal story.”
The relationship Michèle develops with her attacker could be likened somewhat to Breillat’s encounters with Rocancourt. “Elle” has generated the expected controversy, which often doesn’t take into account the complexity of the script by David Birke, which he adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel. Huppert told me her character’s reaction to this “new experience” is meant to be mysterious, though it’s clear that she is exploring her sexuality in an unusual way. Amidst the “game of manipulation” between her and the duplicitous rapist, Huppert says that she found “something human and touching” in Michèle’s quest toward self-discovery. The idea that honesty ultimately serves as the heroine’s moral compass appeals to Huppert, “whether it comes from a higher power or something that she seeks within herself.” She also agrees that “Elle” could be interpreted as an erotic dream had by Nathalie in “Things to Come,” and hails both filmmakers for their similar command of tone.
“Mia is so talented, and is quite impressive in how she is able to move between lightness and darkness, between being funny and being emotional,” said Huppert. “She knows exactly how to be subtle and nuanced, and Paul Verhoeven has that same kind of ability. I admire how their films have multiple layers. Verhoeven is so clever at never allowing you to be locked into one particular genre. He’s always jumping from one genre to the next. ‘Elle’ goes from being a thriller to a psychological study to something more comic. Life, of course, doesn’t have one genre. Your day could start off comedically and end tragically.”
Huppert also noted that Verhoeven likes to play with film references, and during the film’s Q&A, he credited Alfred Hitchcock as a key inspiration. That can certainly be observed in the carnal subtext that reverberates throughout various violent attack sequences in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, most iconically the phallic knife penetrating the nude female victim in “Psycho.” Verhoeven turns the tables on this scenario by having Michèle penetrate her attacker with a sharp object, much like how Grace Kelley wielded the scissors in “Dial M For Murder.” Yet it is subtlety, above all, that Huppert seeks in the projects she chooses.
“I think cinema allows you to blur the lines and be as ambiguous as possible,” said Huppert. “It allows you to have the same kind of subtlety that you have in literature. That is how I like to consider whatever role that I take. I look for roles that will give me that space to explore. The camera allows you to have that ambiguity. You can say one thing while expressing the opposite.”
In my TIFF review of “Elle,” I wrote that Huppert had “one of the great faces in cinema,” and cited a close-up from the film in which the smallest flicker of a smile registers on her face. It occurs after a fantasy sequence in which she bludgeons the rapist to death, and her subsequent, perfectly pitched expression brought down the house.
“I think it is closer to reality,” said Huppert. “My obsession is to always be as believable as possible, and I think most of the time in life, people under-react rather than overreact. Overreacting is more fictional than real, and I just try to be real.”
During this year’s New York Film Festival, Huppert said that she considers “Elle” a “post-feminist” film, and that Michèle was, in some ways, formed by “man’s failure.” In light of the disparaging words routinely aimed at women during this year’s presidential election, the failure of men has rarely looked more horrifying.
“With the threat of the world becoming so misogynistic, I think it’s important to show women like this who avoid man’s weaknesses as much as possible,” said Huppert. “The men that Michèle encounters are mediocre or fragile or failures. In a way, the film takes place in a post-male era where men have faded into something that is very difficult for women to connect with.”