No Subtitles Necessary

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What makes a film French? One tipoff is the casting of Isabelle Huppert as yet another psychologically disturbed and morally compromised character. Her latest film, Elle, France’s official entry for the foreign-language Oscar, opened in Los Angeles this week, and Huppert appeared in person on stage at the Landmark Theatre after the 7:10 screening on Wednesday.

During the question-and-answer session, Huppert described how the director, Paul Verhoeven, “really wanted the film to be French.” Born in the Netherlands, where he directed his early films, Verhoeven has had a long career in Hollywood (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and, yes, Showgirls). According to Huppert, he had studied French as a student and then took it up again after signing on to direct Elle, based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…, which won the 2012 Prix Interallié.

Huppert told the audience at the Landmark that she occasionally tried to speak English to Verhoeven on the set, but “he would never answer in English” and used only French in directing the cast and crew.

As for Huppert, her command of English is formidable, though charmingly accented. (She has had starring roles in English-language films such as Heaven’s Gate, The Bedroom Window, and I Heart Huckabees.) At one point she struggled with the word “determine,” which she pronounced without inflection, in the French manner, as “dee-tear-mine” (with the last syllable sounding like the opposite of “yours”).

When the opening credits were rolling, a man sitting to my right turned toward his companion (probably his wife, from the grumpily familiar way he addressed her) and complained, “I guess there will be subtitles.” She replied, “Well, it is a French film.”

Well, that settled that, even before Huppert appeared on screen.

— Bob

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