CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILL. | French thespian Isabelle Huppert, hot from her Oscar nomination for best actress for the thriller “Elle,” was on hand for a screening of the film at Ebertfest Friday evening.
“Roger said sometimes your face was inscrutable, but you built your characters from the inside out,” Chaz Ebert, widow of film critic Roger Ebert, said as she presented Miss Huppert with the “Golden Thumb” award following the screening at her late husband’s eponymous film festival, now in its 19th year.
“I don’t think you can really prepare” for a role like this, Miss Huppert said of Michele, the middle-aged woman who is violently raped at the outset of “Elle,” and then begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game to trap her assailant. “I read the book and thought it could be a great film,” she said of Philippe Djian book, “Oh…” which was the basis for “Elle.”
“If you prepare, you’re going to [steer] the performance to one direction over another, and what makes such a role valuable is that it’s always kind of” ambiguous, Miss Huppert told the crowd at the Virginia Theatre.
She said that Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, known in the U.S. mostly for “RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct” and “Total Recall,” gave her barely any direction on how to interpret Michele.
“Movies are kind of a language in and of themselves,” Miss Huppert said of Mr. Verhoeven’s trust in her as an actor. “He gives you a lot of energy.”
Miss Huppert said she was drawn to the “unsentimentality” of Michele, saying that many fictional roles — and frequently those for women — veer toward being needlessly overly emotional.
“Too often people think characters should be nice, but it’s more important to be truthful,” she said of Michele. “It’s a different way to see fiction.”
“Elle” is a realization of a revenge fantasy, Miss Huppert, 64, said. While the violent payback drama is one of cinema’s oldest formulas, typically the protagonists are men, and often they are far more violent — in the vein of “Death Wish.”
“It’s not a film that takes you by the hand and says ‘hello’ to you,” she said. “What I was interested in was to try to reflect something as truthful as possible, and I think this film allowed me to do so,” she said. “But it should not be taken exclusively as a realistic [or] character story.”
When asked if she had planned to be a big star at the start of her career, Miss Huppert said, “I had no dreams. I have no dreams now.
“I knew that I wanted to have specific kinds of roles,” she said. “I wanted them to be the center of the story. I knew that from the beginning.”
Miss Huppert appeared in 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” which was critically reviled and became one of the biggest flops of all time. Miss Huppert said that director Michael Cimino never got over the rejection of the film, and she was quick to come to the defense of the notorious failure Friday evening.
“I think he was the greatest living American director,” she said of Cimino, who died in July.
In addition to her Oscar nomination, Miss Huppert won a Golden Globe for “Elle.”
Michele, she said, had an attraction she perhaps cannot even name.
“You have elements from the past, from the present,” she said. “The fact that she’s a powerful woman is key to understanding her.”
Mr. Verhoeven’s Catholicism, Miss Huppert said, also played a part in the film’s themes.
“Love your enemy,” she said, parroting a prominent axiom of Christian belief and how it applies to the film’s morally complicated ending.
When asked by The Washington Times if she thought the film faced any backlash because the revenge drama is typically male-centric, Miss Huppert said she did not think of the film that way.
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