Monday, November 28, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Imprinted on my mind

Isabelle Huppert and "Elle" director Paul Verhoeven.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Isabelle Huppert and Paul Verhoeven Deliver The Year's Most Controversial, Intriguing Film — "Elle."

“I HAD complete trust in Paul Verhoeven. He protected and guarded me.  He has a delicacy and sweetness — surprising, yes?  I bet that is unexpected to you?  I was so free. It was like he gave me a lump of clay or a piece of marble, I was a sculptor. 

“Eventually, he said:  ‘Let her do it. She is a woman. She knows.’”
THAT is the French actress Isabelle Huppert, last week at Manhattan’s Plaza Athenee  hotel, facing a room full of somewhat shell-shocked members of the press and Academy voters, after a screening of her highly controversial film, “Elle.” (The eternally dynamic Peggy Siegal put it all together with her usual panache.)
NOT that controversy is new to actor or director. Huppert has made a career out of playing women reaching into darkness, without necessarily going over the edge, in traditionally emotionally feminine ways (“The Piano Teacher,” “Story of Women,” “Ma Mere” to name only a few.)
Huppert in “The Piano Teacher."
Working since her teens she has 80 credits to her name. “My Fair Lady” was the first movie she ever saw. But it was the Russian film, “The Cranes Are Flying” that convinced her she wanted to be an actress, “To smile and cry at the same time — that movie was imprinted on my mind.”
“The Cranes Are Flying" — the movie was imprinted on her mind.
As for the Dutch-born Verhoeven,  his resume includes “Spetters,” “Basic Instinct,” RoboCop,” “Total Recall,”  Showgirls,” “Starship Troopers.”  All of these films delivered ripples/waves of outrage to some members of the audience — and critics — whether it was sex, violence or both.

Huppert and Verhoeven seemed fated to be mated, cinematically. It is hardly surprising that their collaboration on “Elle” — based upon Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh” — takes the hot-button issue of rape, reaction and perhaps revenge, and sets it on its ear. 
“Elle” has been advertised in some quarters as a “revenge” film — a woman (Huppert) is brutally raped in her home, and there are consequences.  Yet, I did not find much revenge here. Others did. It is a movie open to multiple interpretations and that is exactly what star and director intended.

Huppert, a beauty whose presence onscreen and off is delicate but intense, pragmatic and wry, said: “I never think of ‘the character’ in terms of good or bad.  I think of the complications, the conditions, the situation. No character is complete, because no human being is complete, or easily defined.”
“Paul and I never discussed Michelle, never.  We just did it.  I’ll tell you what we did talk about.  The costumes, the clothes.  I know you might think that’s unimportant, especially in a movie like this, with such subject matter.  But, I have a friend who always says, ‘my preparation starts here’ (Huppert pointed to her shoes)   Now, perhaps you imagine for ‘Elle’ my preparation started here or here (Huppert indicates her nether regions and her heart). 

But no.  When you wear the clothes you step into the life. She is a working woman, a powerful woman. Her clothes at work reflect her power.  Otherwise, there is more femininity, maybe a bit of childishness, an innocence.  There is an innocence to her, I feel.  And you know, with her and with other characters, it’s not the twisted aspects that attract me, but the innocence.”
“ELLE” exists to provoke. The rape scenes (more than one) are difficult to watch (“harder on the audience, I realize, than on the actors,” Huppert says.)  Even more provoking and disturbing is her reaction. Michelle is pragmatic, enigmatic, matter of fact. (Qualities she shares, it must be said, with Ms. Huppert.)  Although she goes to her doctor, Michelle, who handles the creation of  extreme video games, does not report the attack. “I was, I suppose ... raped” she announces rather unemotionally, at dinner with friends.
For a while, the film itself seems to wander away from the rape, and become one of those eccentrically charming French tales of family complications.  Michelle has difficult relationships with her sexed-up, youth-obsessed mother, slacker son, amiable ex-husband and her duplicitous, insistent married lover.  There is also a horribly traumatic incident out of Michelle’s childhood.  It has (perhaps) affected how she deals with all aspects of her life and this particular, brutal incident.

But, the rapist reasserts himself, shockingly, and the relationship between victim and predator drives the film to its ambiguous finale. (There is considerable dark humor in the film, if you care to be darkly amused by such a plot.)
There are no scenes of high emotion, despite the ugliness Michelle suffers. Huppert explains: “She never cries.  She has a non-emotional surface.  Showing her crying, distraught would be false, indulgent. Maybe more comforting for the audience, I realize that.  She’s not a victim and she’s not an avenger. This is a film, a story, one event, that woman. I know some people want to be politically outraged, but ...”  Huppert gives a little shrug that says, “It’s the movies, cherie.”

She continued:  “You know, in films, people are always showing their emotions, that’s what the movies are for.  But in real life you often don’t have that luxury. People are enigmas; the truth is often hidden or only suggested. The wonderful thing about the camera, is that it can come close, and you can feel, rather than show the emotion, if that’s how you want it to be.” Huppert added with a laugh, “And, obviously, that’s how we wanted it to be.”
Pressed as to if the audience is really supposed to come to their own conclusions about Elle and her rapist, the actress said, “Yes.” 

Realizing that this monosyllabic response did not satisfy her questioner, she elaborated:  “There are deliberate holes, gaps, mystery. But your question, really, must be answered by Paul Verhoeven.”
Two more things. The movie’s poster and trailer show Michelle’s cat, prominently, suggesting the animal has some bearing on the tale. The actress says, “Well, it’s her cat, and he sees it all.  But, it’s only a cat, you know?”  (The cat doesn’t do anything special, solve the crime or wreak havoc on the rapist.  It’s not a Stephen King tale.)

The other thing?  Miss Huppert is brilliant in her role.  What Elle does, or does not do, might be disturbing or confusing. What Miss Huppert does, is screen acting at its most intriguing and luminous.
HERE is a photo of my friend, the artist Mary P.R. Thomas, also known as Tommy Thomas, at 90 years of age. She died on Nov 21st at her home in Manhattan.

On the occasion of her 90th birthday, we friends of Tommy got together at Joe Allen’s theatre café on west 46th Street. None other than former Times drama critic Frank Rich spoke eloquently of Tommy’s life and art work, which had been praised by the Times’ own art critic, the late John Russell.
Tommy Thomas and Holland Taylor from Tommy's 90th birthday party at Joe Allen.
Tommy left many art works and all her love to her life partner, Ellen Violet, the writer. If you want to reach Ellen, send it c/o me @  And I will pass it on.

So long, Tommy, keep that paintbrush flying!
Contact Liz here.