“The more I do it, the more I think that moviemaking is so much about the present time,” says Isabelle Huppert, the sprite-size French titan of Continental cinema (and beyond). “What happens is here, ici maintenant — like in philosophy, ‘here and now.’ It’s about this moment.”
For the past 45 years, Huppert’s brilliant, alert, and alive performances have been the fulcrum of films directed by, to name just a few, Claude Chabrol (the late auteur with whom she made 1988’s Story of Women, among many other titles, and with whom she is most closely associated), Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself, from 1980), Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, 2001), and Claire Denis (White Material, 2009). Huppert excels at creating characters who defy simple assessment, the result, perhaps, of exhibiting agile reflexes while resisting overdetermination. As she explains: “The joy of doing it is how this miracle is going to repeat, hopefully. Not only every day, but every take.”
Those miracles can be witnessed at this year’s New York Film Festival in two titles that both feature the actress in almost every frame: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. In the former, Huppert plays Nathalie Chazeaux, a high school philosophy professor whose husband of 25 years, a fellow pedagogue, abruptly announces that he’s leaving her for another woman; in the latter, she is Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a video game company who gets revenge — sort of — on the man who rapes her in the film’s opening seconds.
Though the films are radically different — Hansen-Løve’s unfolds as a gentle drama while Verhoeven’s is a constantly bewildering coal-black comedy — Huppert’s protagonists share certain biographical details. Both Nathalie and Michèle become or are already divorced, have impossibly overbearing mothers, and become grandmothers during the course of the films. (Also: A cat features prominently in each woman’s life.) But on top of these superficial similarities, Huppert sees a broader thematic link between the two projects.
“There is a mirror effect from one to another,” the actress, 63, explained during a conversation in the amphitheater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, while in town earlier this month to perform the title role(s) in Phaedra(s) onstage at BAM. (She’ll be back in the city for the NYFF presentations of Things to Come and Elle; both screen at the festival on October 14 and 15 and will open in theaters later this fall.) “I think that these are two women who don’t want to be victims and want to turn what happened to them into something — not positive, but they want to take control.”
Hansen-Løve, whose two previous features, Goodbye First Love (2011) and Eden (2014), were also showcased at NYFF, wrote the part of Nathalie with Huppert specifically in mind, though the character is based partly on the director’s own mother. (Both of Hansen-Løve’s parents are philosophy professors; by sheer coincidence, her mom taught Huppert’s daughter, Lolita, at a lycée north of Paris years before the filmmaker and actress began their collaboration.) “We were really in tune during the whole shoot,” Huppert says of working with Hansen-Løve, whose instructions to her lead performer were simple. “She didn’t want to do something too sentimental. And she also wanted to keep a certain light[ness] to the film. This is something she constantly oriented my performance to. Maybe my deep tendency would be to darken things a little bit. Even small details — a way of smiling at a certain moment, where maybe instinctively I wouldn’t have smiled.”
Yet any film starring Huppert bears her authorial stamp as much as that of its director. As Nathalie navigates her life after her spouse’s departure — a process that includes deepening her ties to her favorite former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), in a lovely depiction of intergenerational friendship — the actress perfectly calibrates her responses, never overplaying them while burrowing deep into her character’s emotions. “It helps to maintain a certain distance to whatever happens,” she says. “Even when I have arguments with my husband in Things to Come, to keep this constant slight hint of irony avoids put[ting] too much [of a] burden on what you do. It’s doing a step back. You keep the drama, you keep the hurt, you keep everything, but it becomes lighter.”
The actress’s ability to bring levity to even the most sinister scenarios is crucial to a project as perplexing and unsettling — and funny — as Verhoeven’s Elle, a film that unmoors spectators from the start: After Michèle is violated in her luxe Saint-Germain home, she calmly sweeps up the debris, draws herself a bubble bath, and calls for takeout sushi. When she discovers the identity of her assailant, she pursues him, but in highly unexpected ways.
Huppert had been a fan of Verhoeven — the Dutch provocateur equally renowned and reviled for Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) — going all the way back to one of his earliest features, Turkish Delight (1973), about the tempestuous relationship between a sculptor and his wife. “I remember reading this very good review of [Turkish Delight] in Charlie Hebdo,” she recalls. “The film was completely neglected release-wise; it was [shown] in a semi-porno movie house, and that’s where I saw it.”
It makes sense that Verhoeven’s audacious sensibility would appeal to Huppert, whose portrayal of the sadomasochistic Erika Kohut (partial to genital-slicing and Mom-humping) in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher endures as one of her most indelible performances from the past fifteen years. “Verhoeven is always on the razor’s edge,” the actress explains. “Like in Black Book” — his 2006 feature — “you have the Jewish girl sleeping with the Nazi.” Huppert inhales dramatically before continuing: “It’s always a bit hard to swallow. There’s always the risk that you confuse the [critique] with the empathy. Where you think he’s in empathy with his subject, no — it’s the contrary.”
To preserve the multiple ambiguities that provide the motor for Elle (written by David Birke and based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, “Oh…”), Huppert and Verhoeven avoided lengthy conversations about her enigmatic character. “If I was going to explain with Paul before [starting] Elle, it would have been hell, with an h — to explain [Michèle’s] behavior,” she insists. “And Paul never said a word to me as we were doing the film, never. He said, ‘I was completely more like a witness.’ ” Huppert says that she approached the role as a spectator of sorts as well: “I never knew exactly what I was going to do the day before. It was always a surprise for me as I was doing it.”
Huppert’s resulting performance is a careful balancing act, one in which she refuses to soften the hard edges of the unpredictable lead character in a film that, as she notes, “gives you more hypotheses” than answers. “Certainly she’s not afraid of going beyond certain limits,” the actress says of Michèle, whose most memorable line in the film may be, “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.” Endlessly complex, the Elle protagonist is, per Huppert, “a new heroine. She has the ways of overcoming whatever: her shame, her guilt.” And observations that the actress makes about Michèle could equally apply to Nathalie in Things to Come: “She’s a solitary woman. She’s fearless, also. That’s what makes her interesting.” Fearless: just like the actress herself.