The opening scenes of Elle, the latest provocation from Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven, telegraph the birth of what might become a new kind of razor-edged woman’s story. In the suburbs of Paris and in broad daylight, video game executive Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her own home by a masked intruder with no one around to witness but her bemused, unhelpful cat.
The attack is quick and brutal. When it’s over, Michèle does the first of many unexpected things to come: She tidies up the scene of the crime, orders sushi, and goes about her day as if nothing extraordinary happened.
As she continues to live her daily life—fantasizing quietly about getting vengeance on her unknown attacker—she endures other vicious microaggressions from the people around her: Her slacker son and his insolent girlfriend, her struggling author ex-husband, the married lover she no longer wants, her sexed-up elderly mother, and the aggressive young men who work for the video game company she runs, profiting off misogynistic games that promote sexual violence against women.
Audiences may recoil at the brutality Michèle suffers onscreen. But Huppert, who brought a bleak but knowing sense of humor to a role Verhoeven says no American actress would take, waves off the emotional difficulty of filming Michèle’s rape.
The impact of such violence upon her body sinks in powerfully in a single silent image of the act’s quiet aftermath: Having thrown away her ruined dress, she eases into a hot bath and a bloom of crimson blood slowly rises into the soapy bubbles. “I watched it and remembered: I was just having a nice little time with some raspberry syrup,” Huppert laughed. “But the blood coming to the surface, and the colors… the red and the white. That’s the power of cinema, and it’s the power of a great director, you know?”
Following in the tradition of Verhoeven’s sexually weaponized heroines, Elle is a cutting and controversial study of a rape survivor who refuses to see herself as a victim, adapted by David Birke from the novel Oh … by Phillippe Dijan. Instead of going to the police, Michèle deals with the violation in her own increasingly masochistic ways—but it’s Huppert, the 63-year-old sizzling dame of French cinema, who takes Elle beyond controversy with her singular alchemy of brazen fearlessness and dark wit.
“It really speaks about someone who might not exist in fiction, but it’s so close to what I think reality is,” Huppert told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. “This new type of woman, neither a victim nor the classical avenger. She’s something else.”
Some critics have described Elle as a thriller with a touch of black comedy, and many viewers will find it challenging to stomach. After it premiered at Cannes, even Verhoeven seemed surprised that more people weren’t offended on principle. In the tradition of so many rape-revenge films, Elle gives Michèle the most brutal inciting incident imaginable to a woman, short of death—and then sits back and watches to see how she transforms her trauma into vengeance. The course she charts for herself, however, is far from the typical avenging angel. Is this empowerment or exploitation?
“That’s exactly what Verhoeven wanted to escape, and it’s of course what the writer Philippe Dijan escaped,” Huppert offered. “And I understand why, in the first place, that you can be so disturbed that you can mistake it as the opposite of what it is—misogynistic.”
“On the contrary,” she continued, “it’s an acknowledgement of a certain woman empowerment in the best sense of the word. What she does and what she decides to do, the path she takes after she’s been raped—it’s so real in a way. And it’s interesting because it’s something you cannot categorize. She gives birth to a new self, a new person. The film is interesting because it’s as much about men as about women, too, by default. It’s also about a certain idea that men’s power has faded—and she is the product of the new era.”
Huppert’s coldly efficient Michèle dominates the circle of friends, neighbors, and relatives in her orbit, a steely female force among failed men forged from the ashes of her father’s terrible deeds. “They’re either weak figures or super violent figures like her father, but obviously they haven’t come to terms with what they should be: normal persons. So she’s also the product of something going wrong in a man’s world.”
Critics adore Huppert’s exquisite and surprising reactions, captured in sublime stillness by the camera: a slight upturn of her mouth just when we expect distress, a nearly imperceptible glow in her eyes reacting to another confrontation, insult, or burden.
“I don’t even think about it,” she said. “I think it’s a very personal statement when I do this—or it could be—because in those moments where it might be the most about myself, I’m also thinking about the great humor and the irony. That comes from me.”
“In most situations I have this little ironical distance to what I see or what I hear, and of course the camera captures that,” she added, eyes twinkling. “It’s the ideal medium. In life nobody’s there to capture that in my eyes, so most of the time it’s a solitary little pleasure. I watch people, I watch situations, and I laugh with myself.”
“Here because the camera is there to capture all these little moments, I think it’s more interesting to do so rather than underlining heavily… it’s more funny. And as the movie moves on it’s a good counterpoint to something very, very dark that runs inside the film. Because we have this irony all the time, and it’s a pleasure for me to do it…”
Even Huppert considers her Elle role one of the strongest she’s played in recent years—and in an exceptionally rich and highly decorated four-decade career there have been many. “I’ve done a lot of complex roles and I was really lucky and privileged for that,” she beamed. “But this is one of the great roles I’ve done recently. I mean, I’m spoiled.” Her eyes widened with mischief. “I often do great roles—otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
Huppert, who lives in Paris, says she’s never quite felt the brunt of sexism as an actress that women in Hollywood have been fighting. “Personally, I’ve never really felt concerned by this,” she said. “From the beginning I was sure that I didn’t want to be a supporting actress to a man, that’s for sure. I didn’t want that for me, for myself. I didn’t want to—how do we say it in French?—to serve the soup.”
“I wanted to be the center. That was my way of being feminist, if I can say so: I wanted to be the central part of the film, even if I was playing a victim or playing a weak character, whatever! I wanted to be the center of the focus.”
She paused, reflecting on the path that choice sent her down. “I have to say, I found myself doing more of a certain type of films,” she said. “More auteur films, more independent films, rather than big mainstream films. And even now I feel like I still have this position. I’m strong, I’m established, but I don’t feel like I’m a major mainstream actress in France.”
“I don’t reject a priori anything!” she laughed. “I just follow the path that I had to follow. I don’t think you decide everything in your life. You make people believe that you control everything but it’s not always true. You create the conditions of your success. And you create the best possible conditions given certain limitations that life gives you. And upon that you create your own… thing.”