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Interview: Isabelle Huppert (Paul Verhoeven’s Elle)

There’s never been a performer quite like Isabelle Huppert, the elusive and enigmatic center of auteur art-house cinema since she broke out in 1977 with Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker. Her massive, prolific resume (now in her sixties, she shows no signs of slowing down, regularly part of three or more projects in a regular calendar year, plus frequent special events for the stage) spans five decades across multiple cultures and includes collaborations with some of the most notable directors the cinema has ever known. An Olympian of the French cinematic scene (she was a muse of Claude Chabrol’s, the director with whom she collaborated the most, across seven films between 1978 and 2006), she’s worked with Polish, Italian, Filipino, South Korean, German, American, Russian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Cambodian directors (plus several others I’m missing), uniting for the first time with Dutch legend Paul Verhoeven (making his French language debut) with Elle, an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s (author of Betty Blue) 2012 novel Oh….

Having twice won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, a Cesar (she is the record holder for most nominations with fifteen, earning her comparisons to Meryl Streep), a BAFTA, and three wins at the Venice Film Festival (two Volpi Cups for Best Actress, and a Pasinetti award shared with co-star Sandrine Bonnaire for La Ceremonie), she’s one of the most decorated cinematic performers on the globe—and yet, she is without an Oscar nomination. It’s a slight which may about to change thanks to Sony Pictures Classics mounting an impressive campaign for her with Elle (Huppert was one of the top bets to take home Best Actress out of Cannes again, but perhaps this distinction will be a fair compromise). I was able to sit with her in Los Angeles at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the day after a significant Gala screening at the 2016 AFI Film Festival, where Huppert was specifically honored with a tribute.

Although many journalists have waxed eloquently about Huppert’s career and fiercely private reputation during interviews, sitting down with her to discuss what will be inevitably remembered as one of her most phenomenal performances (a notable distinction from the woman who starred in The Piano Teacher, Ma Mere and La Ceremonie), the chance to speak her for fifteen minutes was the opportunity of a lifetime for this humble journalist.

Discussing notions of gender, control, and familial guilt, Huppert shares her thoughts on the construction of her character and some of the film’s particular subtexts. Generously, she discussed some details about upcoming projects, including the new Serge Bozon vehicle Madame Hyde (their second union after 2013’s excellent Tip Top), which she just wrapped, as well as some in-depth details about the new Anne Fontaine film, Marvin, in which she has a small role. Additionally, I got a quick snippet on the failed Luca Guadagnino film The Body Artist, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novella which was going to star Huppert, Sigourney Weaver, Denis Lavant and David Cronenberg before it was suddenly cancelled. The project instead went to Benoit Jacquot (now called Never Ever, it premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival)—but Huppert divulges she will be reuniting with Jacquot for another exciting project (they have worked together several times, first in 1981’s The Wings of the Dove and last in 2009’s Villa Amalia, with some titles in-between), a remake of Joseph Losey’s 1962 film Eva, which starred Jeanne Moreau (of interesting note, Jacquot recently remade The Diary of a Chambermaid, which Moreau headlined previously for Bunuel—and Huppert starred in Losey’s 1982 film, The Trout). While there was no time to shout out a slew of other Huppert titles in the works, 2017 will also yield a reunion with Hong Sang-soo and Michael Haneke, while she is also slated to appear in projects from new filmmakers, like Barrage from Laura Schroeder and The Sleeping Shepherd from Frank Hudec.

A fascinating and important cultural figure, Huppert belongs to an exclusive pantheon of actors who are as prominent and prolific as the men and women directing them. She’s as fascinating in person as she is on screen, and her union with Verhoeven is proof she’s at the top of her craft. She is fierce. She is formidable. She is Elle.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, TIFF and AFI. His top 3 for 2016: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade), Elle (Paul Verhoeven) and OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman).

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