"What you see is her refusing to be a victim..." hmv.com talks to Elle director Paul Verhoeven
Throughout his career Paul Verhoeven's films have drawn mixed reviews and mixed takings at the box office. But his reputation as a provocateur? That has always remained intact.
The 78-year-old Dutch director responsible for such controversial films as Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Hollow Man touched off a firestorm of both praise and criticism when he premiered his latest film Elle at Cannes last year. Was it misogynist? Brilliant? Could it be both?
Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher) plays Michèle, a French businesswoman who is raped in the film's opening moments. But she brushes off the attack and continues on with her life, which includes tempestuous relationships with the young male programmers at her video game company, her ex, and her son and his domineering, unfaithful girlfriend.
Then there is her father who has been imprisoned for decades for a murder spree the young Michèle watched and in which, it is implied, she may have participated.
hmv.com sat down with Verhoeven (pictured above on the set with his star) to discuss the difficulties of getting Elle made, unlikeable female characters, and the film's ambiguous take on rape.
You originally tried to make Elle in America but realised that you couldn’t “with any level of authenticity.”
"No, I couldn't because no one wanted to do it. Basically, the actresses that we approached didn't want to do it. And not even within the framework of 'Well, let's discuss it. Can we sit down?' which normally they would say. It was really a final and decisive no. And so we gave up that idea. The good thing that came from that is that I worked with an American scriptwriter [David Birke] that I considered to be really good. He gave more structure to the French movie than French movies generally would have had."
Actresses you have worked with have to really commit to the part. Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, for instance, that performance really hurt her career.
"It destroyed her."
Isabelle Huppert is perfect for this role. Talk about her reaction to the script.
"Before Saïd [producer Ben Saïd] sent me the book Isabelle Huppert had already read it and had already talked to the writer, Phillipe Dijan, and had talked to Said that she wanted to do it. So we knew that, and I met her in Berlin and we had a discussion about the movie. But we thought it would be American, with American actors and actresses. So when we failed, we jumped into doing a French movie because we knew Isabelle wanted to do it in the first place. And five minutes later we called Isabelle."
Michèle is not always easy to like, as are many heroines in your films, like Nomi Malone in Showgirls and Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct. How interesting is it to work with female characters who are going to challenge the audience and not necessarily endear themselves to us?
"I'm really a fan of a statement of [playwright] Bertolt Brecht who said, basically, 'If you identify, you falsify.' If you make the audience identify with one of the main characters, you cannot look at it anymore objectively. So you should avoid identification of the audience with the character."
There has been a lot of controversy over Michèle's reaction to her rape. It happens, she cleans up and goes on with her day.
"But that basically is character, huh? Her character is established nearly immediately. The rape, you don't even see in the beginning. You heard it, but you didn't see it. And then she gets up in that second or third shot, and then the next shot is she's cleaning up. But that's the character. And then she goes to the bathtub, the blood comes out, and she wipes it away. And then she orders sushi. I think in two minutes her character is established.
"It's not me moralising. I'm not saying it's a movie about something awful happening and then dealing with the consequences. The character is saying, 'I don't accept the consequences.' That's established from the beginning. 'This is done, and I'm not going to extend that over the next three months or three years. I'm isolating this. I'm burning it.' It is clear that what happened to her when she was 10 has a lot to do with that. She must have endured this trauma that she could only live through by isolating it and stepping over it. And what you see in the first two minutes of the movie is her refusing to be a victim. She refuses to let that mark her life."
Back in 2014, Isabelle Huppert said, at the opening of the Marrakech Film Festival, that a film is the reflection of its creator’s soul. If Elle is your creation, what does it say about your soul?
"You understand that it exists, the soul?"
We think it does.
"I don't. I'm afraid it's a product of the brain. And there's no hope."
In this film or in life?
"In life. So that's what I think, and unfortunately so."
Elle is released onto cinemas on Friday (March 10th) and is will be available to pre-order on DVD on hmv.com in the coming days.