Isabelle Huppert is a mystery. She rarely talks about her personal life, and despite a history of playing deeply troubled women, she never reveals how these roles affect her personally. Over the course of a fierce, unflinching career spanning 45 years, the 63-year-old actress has managed to humanize one of film’s most enduring and chilly archetypes: the femme fatale. She’s played a murderous prostitute (Violette), a psychopathic maid (La Cérémonie), and a sexually deviant pianist (The Piano Teacher), among many others. Director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), no stranger to dangerous onscreen women, spent 12 weeks with her on their recent collaboration, Elle. Huppert plays Michèle, a successful videogame developer who is raped in the first scene and who, through very unorthodox means, seeks revenge on her attacker. The film is France’s official 2016 Oscar submission, and it could earn Huppert her first Academy Award nod. But even Verhoeven couldn’t begin to explain how she did it.
“I have no idea about Isabelle,” he says in his thick Dutch accent. “There is something about her work that you feel is authentic, that it’s based on something. But you cannot say what. In her acting, she is certainly mysterious. And of course when you talk to her, you don’t get too in-depth, either.”
In the film, Elle never asks for help, and she never suffers, even when she is physically hurt. The contrast fascinated Huppert. “She’s a prototype,” the actress says. “You have no reference with her. She’s not a victim. She doesn’t react like a victim. But she also doesn’t react as a predictable avenger kind of a woman. She is somewhere else.” Verhoeven had tried to make Elle in America. But after a handful of A-list actresses turned him down, he took a crash course in French and hired Huppert for the job. Now it’s impossible to picture anyone else in the role. Huppert’s control, her quiet power, her ageless beauty, are so uniquely her that it’s hard to look away, even when the film — to understate it — gets uncomfortable.
Verhoeven believes that Elle’s controversial third act, in which Michèle uncovers the identity of her attacker and manipulates the situation in a way no audience member could predict, would not have worked with any other actress. “The presence of Isabelle Huppert adds a level to the movie that I would never have thought was possible,” he says. “She is sublime.”
By the end of shooting, Huppert had one final surprise for Verhoeven. When filming wrapped after three months, she flung herself into a spirited dance in front of a stunned crew. “It was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my actor’s life,” Huppert recalls. “It was the end of 12 weeks of being in every frame, every day — every moment, every second — and that’s quite rare, this concentration, this intensity. When it ended, it was a particular explosion of relief, joy, and happiness.” Ask Verhoeven about this moment, and he still laughs at the memory. “It was like she was exorcising the demon of her character that had possessed her,” he says. “I had never seen anything like that.