Isabelle Huppert’s devilish role in Neil Jordan’s wickedly campy thriller Greta (out March 1) — in which she plays a shady lady who lures a New York waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) into a web of violence — is the latest in a line of twisted characters for the 65-year-old French acting legend. Here, the Oscar-nominated Elle star reflects on her most disturbing onscreen behavior to ever slash, slice, and even spit their way onto the big screen across her iconic career in cinema.
Stalking and stabbing might come naturally to Greta — a sadistic widow who makes a grim habit of hunting young women to fill the void left by her absent daughter — but Huppert admits she’s “never played a psychopath before.” Thus, pulling off a harrowing scene where the titular torturess plunges a fatal syringe into a man’s neck required surrendering to the essence of evil. So, Huppert improvised and did the first thing that came to mind: She danced.
“All of a sudden, there was a body language,” she says of her improvised choice to skip and twirl to the Chopin-soundtracked moment which, on the surface, is the stuff of nightmares; But as the scene plays in The Crying Game helmer’s hands, it bounds as a literal and thematic dance between darkness and humor. “I called it a little dance of madness. It speaks to the aspect of the film that’s always on the border of something dark, funny, and completely strange.”
From there, Huppert’s nefarious transformation (as Greta’s sinister side heats up) got “fun” — to the point that a sequence where she flips a table while wearing a chic suit and sipping Chablis felt “quite normal, actually.”
“That’s what films are made for: As an extension of your most obscure and unconfessed feelings…. a film can be like a nightmare or a dream that you are allowed to watch,” Huppert explains, adding that there’s no need to search for deeper meaning in Greta’s monstrosity. “It’s the perfect metaphor in an exaggerated way of human behavior,” she continues, crediting her approach to the spirit of the moment. “I never really think about what I do, I just do it. The films think for me.”
“Not that I’m flipping tables all the time…” She finishes with a pause. “So far, no. But I’ll think about it.”
Huppert scored her first (and, criminally, only) Oscar nod for playing a video game CEO with a haunted past and a convoluted present as she toys with her sexual assailant in Paul Verhoeven’s Cannes entry. As complex as the film’s themes about passion and punishment are amid the #MeToo era, Huppert says she wouldn’t alter a frame of the controversial film.
“There’s not the [slightest] attempt to turn this into a love story. There is desire; that’s the difference. It’s not love,” she says of the central pair’s attraction, which is founded on a rape-revenge plot that takes on a life of its own. “[The #MeToo movement] changed something in the relationships between men and women. I’m not even talking about extreme representations [like] sexual harassment or rape; It probably changed something in a subtler way in relationships between men and women in general. By no means [did it change the impact of Elle].”
Ma Mère (2004)
Huppert plays the maternal half of an incestuous mother/son duo in this psychosexual French drama with a disturbingly bloody conclusion that sees a key sexual act take a fatal turn — one Huppert was eager to tackle.
“It was very daring to bring this [behavior] into a movie,” she observes. “Of course [my character is] violent and of course she’s emotional, but in those kind of scenes I never take it as realistic or natural. I think of it as a fantasy, and in fantasy, everything is possible, like when you dream. I don’t have a matter-of-fact approach; It’s a combination of violence, suffering, and desire [and] I think that the movie allows you to remain in this ambiguity and complexity. That’s what movies are made for!”
8 Women (2002)
Watching Huppert hock a wad of gum into Moretz’s hair in Greta is bliss, but the 22- year-old actress isn’t the first to receive the gift of Huppert’s saliva: Huppert previously spat on French icon Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon’s 2002 comedy-mystery-musical about a group of fierce femmes searching for the truth behind one man’s murder.
“Spitting gum is different than really spitting on someone. Gum is nicer,” Huppert jokes, adding that the idea of unloading on either target didn’t intimidate her. “You do the job no matter who’s in front of you.”
The Piano Teacher (2001)
More tortured than torturer, Huppert’s masochistic music instructor Erika in Michael Haneke’s 2001 masterpiece is bloody and raw in her quest for love; she even slices her own vagina and stabs herself in the shoulder. But, Huppert sees vulnerable innocence in Erika’s struggle.
“She has such a high idea of what love, desire, and sexuality should be,” she says. “At some point, in order to live [that life], you have to compromise. And she pays the price.”