Toronto: Why Isabelle Huppert Never Plays The Victim (Q&A)

Fabrizio Maltese
Isabelle Huppert

The French film legend talks about smashing female stereotypes with 'Elle,' 'Things to Come' and 'Souvenir,' all three of which are screening at the Toronto film fest.

Someone forgot to tell Isabelle Huppert that there are no good roles for woman over 50.

The flame-haired French actress, who turned 63 this year, has never been busier. And, arguably, she's never been better.

Huppert arrives at this year's Toronto Film Festival with three new films in which she shows the exquisite subtlety and range of her acting ability.

In Mia Hansen-Love's Things to Come she is a meticulous philosophy professor whose rigorously crafted life falls apart after her husband leaves her and she loses her job, but who adjusts with a quiet strength and touch of wry humor. In Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir, Huppert's a washed up pop-singer gets a fresh chance at fame, and love, after meeting a much younger man.

Then there's Paul Verhoeven' Elle. In one of the best, and certainly most thrilling performance in her astounding career, Huppert plays a business woman who is brutally raped. But surprisingly, shockingly, she turns the assault into a form of personal, and sexual, affirmation.

Ahead of the Toronto Film Festival, Huppert spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's European News Editor Scott Roxborough on playing powerful women who refuse to conform.


Huppert has three films screening at TIFF (left to right): Elle, Things to Come and Souvenir. Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Your three new films, and the women you play, seem radically different from one another. Is there anything that unites them?
Well, I play all of them, so there is a bit of me in each one. But yes, their circumstances are very different. But none of them are victims. Of course, the nature of the events in the films are very different. In Elle (the character) is raped and she is confronted with this very weird event in her life. In Things to Come it is a series of events that normally happen in the course of life: her husband leaves her, the mother is dying, the children are leaving the nest.

But in both cases they don't react as victims and they also don't take on the opposite stereotype, they are not warriors either. There is no sense of revenge in Elle and no sense of revolt in Things to Come. I think it is a subtle way to show how women take the power and do not victimize themselves but in a subtle way. It's not the black-and-white view where a woman is not a victim, so she's a rebel. No!

Both films are, surprisingly, also very funny.

Yes, that's right. Both films have a great amount of irony. There are funny things in Things to Come and in Elle especially. You have, in Elle, this ironic look at things, that's the Paul Verhoeven imprint. It's in all his movies. I am always amazed at how he manages to keep this ironical look. There's a lot of depth in his vision. Nothing is superficial. He keeps throwing mysterious bridges into the film without any explanations, without any overt psychology he says a lot about family ties, about how violence can transmit through generations. Without saying it. It's really the great power of cinema.

How does Souvenir, in which you play a former winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, fit in with the other two films?

Oh well, Souvenir is completely different. It's more of a fairy tale, it has a certain aesthetic, the melodrama aesthetic. A friend of mine told me: 'it is half-way between Douglas Sirk and Pedro Almodovar.' I thought, wow, that really sets the bar very very high.

My character is a singer who once won the Eurovision Song Contest but she retired. She doesn't really know why, it's just one of these life accidents that is not really explained. Now she works in a factory where they make pâté, liver pâté. Then she meets a very young man, a young boxer, and he falls in love with her. And it's like a star is reborn. It's a love story and it has that simplicity to it, about how life goes down and can then go up again. And the score was written by (smooth jazz group) Pink Martini, so the music is marvelous.

Are you a fan of Eurovision?

Yes! Well I don't watch anymore but I used to when I was a little girl, I've lost track recently. I has become very professional now but I like how it used to be, I like it when it was a bit more camp.

Elle caused a lot of controversy when it premiered in Cannes. Did you expect that?

I expected a lot more controversial reactions. Which hardly happened, actually. At least in France. The few things I've read, that I've been fed to read, have been good. The movie is smart enough so that people can see neither Verhoeven, or Philippe Djian, the author, or myself, are saying this is a general statement about women or women who are raped. It's a single case. It is a fantasy, like a fairy tale, something unreal.

In Toronto, you will also be giving an acting masterclass. What's your technique, how do you build up these characters?

It depends on the director. With Verhoeven, we never talked about the character it just clicked. With (Things to Come director) Mia (Hanson-Love) it was more directed. She didn't want the character to be too dark, so she push to make me more open, which gave a great freshness and lightness to the role and the film. In Elle it wasn't such a problem, because she is a stronger woman anyone. I mean in one (Things to Come) she is a philosophy teacher, in the other (Elle) she runs a video game company. So it's obvious these are different women that come from different places and react differently to events.

But I just follow the pattern, its just something unconscious. I believe in the power of the moment, the instant. The magic moment or whatever – when everything is focused on that moment. I have the capacity to be in the moment when it happens. But I don't predict anything before it happens and I don't think about it afterwards.

You've worked with some of the masters of cinema: Verhoeven, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke. What makes a great director?

All of the great directors all are able to recognize when something is accurate, when it is real. For example someone like Michael Haneke: he knows exactly when you are real. Different directors are different, and working in different countries things change, but when it comes to acting it is always the same.

Are there any actresses you admire?

Of course. Admiration doesn't mean I take something for my own acting from them. But, for example, I thought Julianne Moore's performance in David Cronenberg's Map of the Stars was quite amazing. It's not realisticly constructed, but wow! Impressive.

You've just finished shooting your next film with Haneke, Happy End. It's a family drama set against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis. What does a film have to contribute to this very political discussion?

Well the film is a portrait of a very wealthy family running this big company in Calais, not far from the camp where the migrants are. And it says a lot about how in our lives, in our privileged world, we are too often deaf and blind to the harsh reality of the world, – about the privileged world. We all know about the negative power of images, of those circulating on the Internet, about how images can be used to say very horrible things but I think fiction, films like these also have a role to play, if we are to understand what is happening, and understand ourselves.

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