There are few actors on Earth who could play Michèle, the protagonist of Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven's new film Elle.
Michèle is a constant mystery, to the audience and even to herself. In the film’s opening scene, she is raped by a masked assailant who breaks into her home, but afterward, she merely cleans up herself and the crime scene and doesn’t report the incident to the police.
Why does she do this? A typical film would likely spend its running time unraveling this central question, but Elle keeps zigzagging all over the place, following Michèle at work, at home, with her family, and with her friends. It observes as her flirtation with a neighbor deepens, and it shows how she tries to stop the flashes of her brutal assault from overwhelming her.
And as the film delves into her own dark past, it becomes easier to understand that the demons Michèle confronts in the wake of the attack are very old ones she’s been trying to outrun for a very long time. And yet that’s not a complete answer to who this woman is, either. Elle never settles for explanations. It’s always trying to go deeper into Michele’s psychological landscape.
Fortunately, the woman playing Elle is French actress Isabelle Huppert, who makes even the film’s more potentially risible sections fascinating. Huppert is one of those actors who tends to make everything she’s in just a little bit better, but she’s rarely had a role as meaty or as intricate as Michèle. Just watching the character think is tremendous fun — she’s so intelligent, but perhaps not smart enough to outthink her own subconscious.
Huppert and I met at a Los Angeles hotel to discuss playing a character who is such a mystery, how the film fits into current conversations around rape and sexual assault, and why Elle reminds her of a Jackson Pollack painting.
Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. And beware: Some (mild) spoilers follow.
Throughout this movie, it often seems like Michèle’s motivations are a mystery even to herself. How do you play a character who keeps secrets from herself?
I think it's easier to play such a character than playing someone who supposedly knows exactly where she goes to and where she comes from. It allows you so many ambiguities and not to give a precise answer all the time. It also certainly allowed me to spill irony all along the film, so it was like a mask, instead of being too emotional. By spilling irony all the time, you keep a very healthy distance.
We wanted deliberately to leave the thing in a certain obscurity, Paul and I. We never really discussed the character intuitively for that reason. We never sat down and said, "Okay, who is Michèle? Why does she do what she does?" We would have gone crazy if we started that way. We wouldn't have done the film.
When you learn about her past and her father, who was a mass murderer, it helped me understand why she’s someone who always chooses to just move forward, without a lot of reflection. Did you see those events from her childhood as pivotal to that decision?
As I was doing the film, I didn't really think a lot about it, but now that the movie is over, I think I have more insight as a spectator than I ever had as an actress in a way. You can guess [at that connection], of course, with all these threads Verhoeven pulls between the past and the present. There is a connection between the past and the present, even though it's very obscure, very disturbing. It could be attraction to the violence. It could be an attempt to understand her father. It could be so many things.
It's also suddenly something about her own sexuality, about her own strange way of being with men. It's very strange, all these regions of people’s psyches. [Her sexuality] could be a very strange way to understand that violence and to understand something about herself, about her father. That's why I like that the last rape scene happens in the cellar. When you start to go into these deep layers of people’s minds, you go into something so difficult to understand, and that's exactly what the movie is about.
Someone the other day made me notice that the movie ends up in a cemetery, so how can you understand that? Obviously she went to her parents’ grave, so now that her parents are dead, is she going to be a new person? As powerful as she is, as independent as she is, as solitary as she is, as fearless as she is, she's very much defined as a daughter in the film.
Whether it is the daughter of the crazy mother, whether it is the daughter of the terrible father, she is a daughter. She is a mother. She's an ex-wife. She's a lover. She’s a daughter. And she is defined by all these relationships.
Interestingly enough, the moment where instinctively I saw the most vulnerability is when — no matter how badly she thought about the father — she understood that he was dead. It's a shock for her, and when she understood that her mother is going to die. When the doctor says, "It's bad. She's going to die," she still wants to believe that her mother is fooling everybody. Those are the two moments where as an actress I felt vulnerability. As independent as she is, she's still a daughter. Maybe [that’s true for] everybody, because we are all children from our parents.
You mentioned all these relationships she’s defined by, but throughout the movie, she either lets down all of those people or they let her down. Do you think there’s a core of this movie that believes relationships are inevitably going to be letdowns?
That's more a question to ask to the writer, Philippe Djian, who gave birth to that woman, the way she behaves and the way she reacts. He gives us his idea of life, which I believe is quite accurate in general, but it could be that it is a kind of universal view of life — the way all relationships in life are so double-faced.
She has all these people dependent on her, but she has control of these people, because she gives money to them, so they are dependent on her. She wishes sometimes those people would leave her alone. Yet when you give money to someone, it's a way of keeping control of them. In a way you want to undo the ties, and in another way you want to keep the ties, always.
For example, the baby, who obviously is not [Michèle’s son’s baby]. But he still wants to like this baby. It's like an open secret that he doesn't want to see. What I really like in the film and in the book is everything is said, everything is shown, little touch by little touch, but nothing is explained. Every five minutes you have a new injection of something. It's like action painting. You throw things, and at the end you have a painting — a strange painting, but you have a painting.
You mentioned how there’s something new and interesting happening every five minutes in this movie, and that’s certainly true. What were some of those things you really responded to when reading the script or the book?
What I really liked is the fact that the character was never emotional. If she was emotional, that would be a way to give explanations, and that would be wrong. But because she is never emotional, everything is left in a mystery. It doesn't mean she's not fragile in her own way. You feel something behind her.
Every day when I came on set, I thought, shall I give up that, shall I make the character emotional? I never found the opportunity. All the way down, you had to keep her standing, moving on, and never reflecting on her own emotions. Never crying, never being compassionate about herself. It would have been wrong.
For me, the fact that she's never emotional, that's where the emotion comes from. If she was emotional, it means that she would be touched or stirred in the wrong way by what happens to her. She doesn't have any emotion with the man [who rapes her]. It's something more cerebral. If it was emotional it would be a bit disgusting, I think.
There’s this conversation in America, certainly, but also all around the world about sexual assault and gender dynamics and all sorts of issues that this film deals with. But it doesn’t offer easy morals or answers, and it keeps exploring new questions about those dynamics. How did you see Elle fitting into that conversation?
The movie is very clear about that. The assault is very brutal, and it's a crime. It's something that has to be punished. There is not any kind of redemption to that, even though Paul Verhoeven likes to have this final twist, like the Catholic wife knowing [her husband was a rapist].
That's disturbing, but that's the case. She knew, because that's also what Catholicism says. Love your enemy. And that's what she does. Don't hate your enemy. That was the final message that she delivers to Michèle at the end of the film.
From the very beginning, Philippe Djian and even Paul liked to say that you can also take the film as a fairy tale. It is not to be taken as any statement. Paul didn't want to diminish the brutality of the assault, and something is unbearable about that. She doesn't take it as a major [moment] because she is what she is. That is where the story starts from, and that's how the story is going to move on. But it doesn't mean the assault is not to be punished. And in the end, it is.
You were attached to this before even Paul Verhoeven was. What makes him a good fit for this?
He has a great sense of black humor and is a master on how to blend several types of movies. In life, you can start your day as a comedy and end up as a tragedy, and he knows exactly how to make a mosaic going from the tragedy to the comedy to a psychological portrait of a woman to a thriller. So many different genres, and yet he makes them work together.
You mentioned you took even more away from watching this movie as an audience member. Do you find that frequently happens with your work?
When you do a film, most of the time you don't have the final object. When it's finished, the film delivers a more precise understanding of what you were experiencing as you were doing it. This one was especially complex, especially ambiguous, was dealing with so many different layers. So it's even more so in that case.
The great filmmaker Jean Renoir had a mantra: "Don't play the end before the beginning." When you play a character, you're not supposed to know how it can end up. The audience sometimes can know more than you, but you're not supposed to know more. If you play the end before the beginning, what is the purpose?
It's like in life, you meet someone. I meet you. I'm in the state of how do I talk to you? Instead of knowing who you are. So the way I look at a role, I like it to be out of constant curiosity.
Elle is playing in theaters. It will expand gradually throughout the country. See a list of dates here.