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Isabelle Huppert on 'Elle' and cinema that goes to uncomfortable places

The legendary actress talks cats, her other new film, "Things to Come," her sense of humor and, well, jelly beans

The inimitable Isabelle Huppert has appeared in some of the best, most daring films of the last four decades. She's been nominated for 15 Cesar Awards, and is one of only four women to win Best Actress at Cannes twice, and one of only two women to win Best Actress twice at Venice. Her two newest films, Paul Verhoeven's "Elle" and Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come," have garnered the actress even more acclaim. We talk to Huppert, 63, about “Elle,” in which she plays a woman who’s been sexual assaulted by a masked stranger, but doesn’t react to it in the way you’d expect.

[There's an array of jelly beans spread across the table]

These jelly beans seem like a pretty good conversation starter, huh?
Yes, I had a few. But they're addictive, I know, I know.

Which is your favorite flavor?
Are there different flavors?

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Yes, I think the different colors are different flavors. The blue is fruity.
Really? I never noticed. I like them all.

Cats play pretty vital roles in both "Things to Come" and "Elle," and you handle the cat like a real pro.
Yes, I am a cat person, I am. I like cats more than I do dogs. The cat is very important in these films — kind of a silent witness to a story in "Elle." It's very interesting how in "Things to Come" the cat is sort of like a burden. It was such a heavy cat, a fat cat, something you have to carry but want to get rid of. It has all these meanings about her life. In "Elle," the cat gives some meaning to whatever she does, what it witnesses. It's an interesting coincidence, since I didn't pick these films just to work with a cat.

You talk to the cat the way my girlfriend talks to her cat, like it's a person. Her cat sleeps on my face and claws me for attention when I sleep.
I know! Cat people get very personal relationships to their cats. My cat has such a strong relationship to my children, for example. It's amazing.

RELATED: Interview: Paul Verhoeven talks "Elle" and never wanting to make a Marvel movie (unless he gets to be weird)

During the New York Film Festival press screening, you called "Elle" a "post-feminist" film, but when someone asked Paul Verhoeven if "Elle" is "feminist," and he said, tersely, "No."
As a joke, we said that. She's a woman of power and doesn't want to be a victim, doesn't want to be the caricature of the female avenger in movies. She's beyond feminism, and all definitions. So she's "post-feminist," a new prototype of woman in opposition to a world of very mediocre men — very weak men.

I can relate to mediocre men.
Noooo, I'm not saying that. But I don't know, in the film, you know, the lover, the ex-husband, the son, the father — all the male figures are mediocre. And she's a very solitary, lone woman. The men do not exist around her.

Another movie that got its U.S. release this year is "Valley of Love," which I like very much, but which didn't linger very long here.
Yes, I don't know what happened with that movie. It played at the French thing [Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous with French Cinema], but never got a real release here. Very strange.

That film, "Elle" and "Things to Come" have very mature, earnest depictions of the dissolution of marriage. Not like an American film, all histrionic, yelling, violence. I know you've said you don't pick roles because of connecting themes.
It's the kind of theoretical idea that comes after you're done. Actually, I'm not so sure that you're [claps hands] clear in your mind at the time. Like I said yesterday, it's more like something that goes beyond you, or goes through you without even being aware of it. Cinema speaks a lot about unconscious, so you're prone to things, driven by things, and you don't even know what it is. It's only when it's all over that you see it and say, "OK, that's what it was all about." But the material is there to push you into that direction without you having any awareness.

On Twitter ... wait, do you use Twitter?
No, I don't like social media. Should I use them?

No, probably not. But how do you stay connected with people without social media?
I don't even know what that means. I just see people to be connected to them. What does social media even mean? Like, Facebook and Twitter? No, I don't like them.

You said yesterday that there is no correct or incorrect interpretation of a film.
Yes, there is no right and there is no wrong, by definition. You can only respond to whatever is being questioned in the film. Even with "Things to Come," I was quite struck when it came out, some people thought it was very melancholic, and some people thought it was very on the contrary, very funny, very hopeful. A friend came up to me after seeing "Elle," and she loved it and she said what was striking for her was that she found the film touching and warm. That's not what you'd expect, for that film to be "touching," but maybe that's not far from what I think, in that sense that no matter what she goes through, very ironically, that the film is also a comedy. A black comedy, a human comedy. There's something very existential in her quest, in her story, in that character, that makes it quite touching at the end.

"Elle" is a very funny movie, and Paul Verhoeven is funny. "The Piano Teacher" is not a funny movie, of course, but you've said that the director, Michael Haneke is very funny, too, and I just have a hard time believing that.
I think most very smart people have a sense of humor. Smart people are funny people. I mean, "The Piano Teacher" isn't exactly a comedy, but I think it still has its hints of humor. Great sense of irony, like "Elle," that keeps you from being too psychological, too sentimental.

Are you a funny person?
I have a great sense of humor, yes. I don't know how you would call it — a capacity, a will to always step-side and always see the irony of any angle of a situation. I think most things are very funny. In the Christmas diner scene, he puts his hand on mine, and I go, "Oooh, ahh, it's so early, ha ha, so engaging..." We haven't even started eating yet and the guy is already grabbing my hand and starting to be flirtatious with me, instead of, you know, going about it. It's just, "Oooh, ha ha, why not?"

In "Things to Come," you're watching Abbas Kiastromi's "Certified Copy" and that portly creepy guy comes up to you and you shut him down, and he gets dejected. But then he grabs you outside and kisses you, and your reaction is just, "No," and you leave. A friend of mine was upset by the nonchalance of the scene.
Because I should have been more aggressive? More reactive? I guess Americans would expect her to be more reactive, but the way I did it was how it was written. There's no fear of the unknown, and there's some kind of conflict, some kind of attraction to that kind of behavior. A heathen takes over any feeling of fear, of being shocked. These movies are so empathetic. They go over the normal moral reaction I would probably have in real life, if a man tried to... well, it's not really assault, he doesn't hurt me. He just tries to kiss me. It's nothing. Plus, he tells her she's very pretty; he's not trying to kill her or anything. That's different. I hope cinema is still a territory where you can depict obsessions and uncomfortable things and things you wouldn't admit in public. Because cinema is such a popular media, you're sometimes expected to follow certain rules. But you need that freedom, otherwise what is the purpose of making films, you know? We would only have films with puppets. If you want to make films about human kind, you need that freedom.

Paul [Verhoeven] said that you and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the two most dedicated people he's ever worked with.
[Laughing] That's funny. Me and Arnold. Yeah.

Who do you think benches more?
Benches?

Like, weight-lifting.
You lift benches?

No, you lay down on your back and push weights up. Benching weights.
Oh, like weights.

Yeah, sorry, it was a dumb joke. I'm not funny like Michael Haneke.
Yeah, I'm not very good at that.

Arnold is.
He's good at pretending.

Follow Greg Cwik on Twitter @gregcwik1

 
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