Place: New York

A New Kind of Woman

Art Categories:  Film
© Sony Pictures Classics

Isabelle Huppert in "Elle" © Sony Pictures Classics


In the beginning is darkness, pierced suddenly by the frenzied cries of a woman in pain…or pleasure. Or, could it somehow be…both? When a smash cut finally reveals a shocking struggle in progress, both our fears and our confusion are equally confirmed. The scene ends as abruptly as it began, and, as we watch the woman slowly recover, clean up the mess, take a leisurely bath, and nonchalantly order sushi, we are left ponder: what could she possibly be thinking?


The inimitable Isabelle Huppert stars in Paul Verhoeven’s first film in over a decade “Elle”, based on the French novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian. Ms. Huppert smolders on screen as the seemingly indestructible Michèle. Living alone, Michèle navigates the unpredictable waters of life: heading a successful video game company, dealing with her depressed ex-husband, her spoiled son, her carefree mother, and the resurfacing of an infamous legacy left by her criminal father. When a masked assailant attacks her in her home, Michèle’s reaction is not what we have come to expect. A mercurial mix of thriller, psychological study and pit-dark comedy, “Elle” challenges the viewer to confront their own prejudices toward the dynamics of control and the nature of victimhood.


Isabelle Huppert & Paul Verhoeven at NYFF54

In the fall of last year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center welcomed Ms. Huppert and Mr. Verhoeven to a press conference for the 54th New York Film Festival’s special sneak preview of “Elle.” Originally planned as a Hollywood film, with a script by American screenwriter David Birke, “Elle” turned out to be a French production. Mr. Verhoeven posited what happened, “I can only guess why they said no, because the subject of the movie in the American cinematic idiom would have been a revenge. And the novel and the film go in a completely different direction—diametrically opposite. That lack of revenge, and let’s say even a certain identification of the main character with the rapist, was probably the reason that they didn’t want to do it, because it’s so against the grain of the thematic material that American movies use.”


But, Mr. Verhoeven maintains, the move from Hollywood to Paris was ultimately to the film’s benefit. “I knew from the beginning that Isabelle had already been looking at this project before I was there. We were sort of lucky that we failed and that we had to go back to France, and that we could do it with Isabelle. I mean, it was really a miracle, in fact.”


Isabelle Huppert at NYFF54

For her performance in “Elle”, Ms. Huppert has already won a whole host of Best Actress awards, including the Golden Globe, the Lumières, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. In addition, “Elle” marks her 14th nomination for France’s César Award for Best Actress. And on February 26th, nominated for an unbelievable first time in her career, she may very well achieve the title of Academy Award Winner for Best Actress. But how did the spark of Michèle catch fire within her?


“Was it in the story? Is it the character? I think it’s beyond this kind of definition,” Ms. Huppert explains, “It’s something that I thought had never existed before in fiction. As a fictional being, it’s like a prototype, for me. She is a new type of woman. It was exciting to give life to her on the screen, even though when I read the book I didn’t have this theoretical thought about her, just a pure intuition.”


Isabelle Huppert in "Elle" © Sony Pictures Classics

Isabelle Huppert is no stranger to playing unconventional women in controversial films. Considering her performances in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”, Christophe Honoré’s “Ma Mère”, Catherine Breillat’s “Abuse of Weakness”, and now “Elle”, it is possible to see a spectrum of morally ambiguous, strong yet masochistic women enduring a series of indignities. Are these concepts that attract her as an actress?


“I don’t play them with these definitions,” she replies. “No, I take them most of the time like survivors. It’s true that I don’t really bother with whether the character should be sympathetic—it’s not really my problem. I just want the character to be as true as possible. I like to make a character attractive without being sentimental or without being too much explained. But I do it more by intuition than by reflection. And I always try to express—I don’t know how to put it—but part of an innocence in all of those characters. I don’t know if I succeed, but I do it.”


Isabelle Huppert in "Elle" © Sony Pictures Classics

With “Elle”, Mr. Verhoeven and Ms. Huppert deliver to us the extraordinary. Michèle is a new kind of heroine, a radical conception of a character who is as mysterious at the end of the film as she is at the beginning. As her ex-husband in the film says, “The real danger, Michèle, is you.” Ms. Huppert sums up this quality, “She’s an unknown character. In that sense, yes, she’s mysterious. Because she’s what I would call almost a post-feminist character, building her own behavior and space. She doesn’t want to be a victim, that’s for sure, but she doesn’t fall into the caricature of the revenge avenger; she’s somewhere else. She’s the product of a new era.”



Text and press conference photos by Joseph Reid

Production photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics


Elle Official Website


“Elle” is currently playing in New York City at the Angelika Film Center, and will be released on streaming, Blu-Ray and DVD on March 14th. The 89th Academy Awards will broadcast live on Sunday February 26th at 7:00pm ET.