Isabelle Huppert may have an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her role in Elle – but she very nearly wasn’t in it at all, as the French film was originally intended to be a Hollywood production.
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, the maker of hits such as Robocop and Total Recall, says that the film was supposed to be in English, but believes that the plot “goes against the grain of American movies”.
Based upon best-selling French novel Oh… by Philippe Dijan, Huppert plays a rape victim who connects more sympathetically to her attacker than might be expected.
“I was asked to make this as an American movie,” Verhoeven recalls. “I went to a US scriptwriter, but nobody in the USA was interested in this project financially or artistically. So it had to go back to Paris.
“I can only think that they said ‘no’ to the whole idea because it wasn’t a straightforward revenge film, where in the second act you find out who the rapist is, and the third act is about the woman’s revenge. The identification of the main character with the rapist is so against the grain of what we expect.”
‘A new type of woman’
Huppert, 63, described by many critics as “the best actress of her generation”, or even as “the French Meryl Streep”, has won more than 90 awards across her 45-year career, including two prizes for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and 15 Cesar Awards.
But Elle marks the first time one of her roles has made a real impact on Hollywood’s award season.
Calling the character of Michele Leblanc a “gift”, Huppert describes her as “a new character, one that has never before existed in fiction”.
Huppert continues: “She’s a new type of woman. She is a post-feminist character, building her own behaviour.
“She isn’t a victim, but then she doesn’t take revenge. She’s not some James Bond girl, taking control with a gun. She’s the result of a man’s failure, and all the male figures in this film are failed, mediocre and weak. So she represents a new era.
“She’s a solitary figure, independent and not financially dependent upon anyone. So yes, it was fantastic to bring this woman to life on the screen.”
Michele is abrasive and in control, both in her business and personal life, but Huppert says it doesn’t bother her whether or not a character is sympathetic.
She adds: “She’s the kind of person I enjoy playing because she’s morally ambiguous. I won’t take a part thinking of whether they’re nice or not, I just care whether or not they’re true, and I play her as a normal person.
“Elle is actually a comedy in the classic sense of the word. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a human comedy. And then it’s also a thriller, and also a portrait of a woman. It’s definitely not one genre, but then life is not one genre, it goes from comedy to drama all in one day.”
For all their close collaboration – Huppert is in every scene of the film – she and Verhoeven did not speak once about her character or how she should play Michele.
“I think all questions are indiscreet for a director,” she says. “It wouldn’t bother me if Paul never said a word to me. I had all this material given to me, and since I am a woman I would know more about the character by definition.
“You could almost say it is a documentary about a woman, and whatever I did was good enough for him.”
‘Lucky it failed’
French films have enjoyed plenty of success at the Academy Awards outside of the foreign language categories. Marion Cotillard received an Oscar for La Vie En Rose in 2008, while silent film The Artist was heavily rewarded a few years later, along with Michael Haneke’s exploration of old age, Amour. However, Elle’s subject matter – and its treatment – has led to Verhoeven saying he’s “amazed” that the Golden Globes rewarded the film, given Hollywood’s reputation for caution.
“I didn’t realise the Hollywood Foreign Press were so open-minded as to accept it in all its strangeness,” he says. “However, I also knew that Isabelle was fantastic and she deserved to win.
“In the movie we originally felt we had to go the American way. We were lucky it failed and it could go to Isabelle, because I don’t think any other person in the world could have played this part.”
Huppert describes her Oscar nomination as a “miracle” – although La La Land’s Emma Stone remains the favourite to scoop the Academy Award. In the meantime, the French actress has six more films in production for the year.
“Challenging movie parts are the scariest but most rewarding,” Huppert says. “It just depends on who you work with, and trust and confidence in your director are key. Truth has never scared me in a movie. In life, it’s a different matter.”
Elle is released in the UK on 3 March. The Academy Awards are held on 26 February.