In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Susan Wloszczyna makes the case for the Best Actress of 2016: Isabelle Huppert in "Elle." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
Assuming the guise of an exceedingly complicated, cruel, cutting and calculating woman onscreen is not the usual way for a female lead to curry favor with Oscar voters. Even Glenn Close’s vengeful stalker in “Fatal Attraction” was somewhat sympathetic—at least until she stewed that poor bunny. But leave it to wickedly clever French legend Isabelle Huppert, who hasn’t met a taboo-breaking and potentially off-putting character that she couldn’t pull off with cold-blooded panache, to rise to the challenge. Her Michele harkens back to her earlier roles as a real-life ‘30s teen charged with patricide in 1978’s “Violette Noziere,” a homicidal postal worker in 1995’s “La Ceremonie” and a music instructor with a predilection for kinky sex in 2001’s “The Piano Teacher.”
The real sin is that somehow, after a career spanning five decades, the 63-year-old actress has never competed for an Academy Award until now. But by conspiring with Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” fame—a provocateur of the perverse who never met a dangerous female character he couldn’t embrace—Huppert shocks from the very first scene, when her fashionable and well-off divorcee who lords over a Parisian video-game business is violently beaten and raped in her well-appointed home by a masked intruder. Instead of calling the police, though, she simply cleans up the broken dishes, orders sushi, and takes a bubble bath, acting like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. That she regularly fantasizes about the incident is just an inkling of how twisted she might be.
No one, especially the audience, can feel comfortable in Michele’s presence. That power is her sick inheritance after being an unwitting 10-year-old witness to the monstrously notorious crimes committed by her incarcerated father. The way this victim copes is by victimizing others. She has office sex with her best friend’s husband, hides a potentially injurious toothpick in her ex-spouse’s girlfriend’s food, masturbates while peering out a window at a hunky neighbor, degrades her loser son and belittles her Botox-addicted crone of a gigolo-chasing mother. Is this a dark comedy or a depiction of an amoral universe dominated by a woman who won’t be denied? That Huppert, protected by an enticingly polished veneer, makes it impossible to look away when Michele commits her dirty deeds is a testament to her incredible talent. She never overacts. She just is. And it is a scary wonder to behold.