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Isabelle Huppert's first Golden Globe win was one of the night's surprises

Among the biggest surprises of the night at the Golden Globes was Isabelle Huppert’s win in the category of actress in a motion picture, drama for her role in the provocative  thriller “Elle.” The French actress beat out competition from Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain, Ruth Negga and Natalie Portman.

With a career that now stretches back more than 40 years, Huppert is widely recognized as one of the most formidable screen presences in the world, able to convey steely conviction, sensual ambiguity and a broken fragility in equal measure. Yet she had never before been nominated for a Golden Globe.

She made her reputation as a go-to actress for high-profile European filmmakers such as Bertrand Blier, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke. Arguably her best-known role up to now was in Haneke’s 2001 film “The Piano Teacher,” for which she won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival. She made her English-language debut in Michael Cimino’s ill-fated 1980 epic “Heaven’s Gate” and has since worked with a handful of American directors such as Hal Hartley and David O. Russell. Huppert has also been seen in the recent French drama “Things to Come,” as a woman finding herself in late middle age.

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And though she has been nominated more times than any other actress for France’s César awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, she has never been nominated for an Academy Award. With the momentum behind her performance in “Elle” – Huppert has also been nominated for a Spirit Award and has received numerous critics group prizes – that may soon change.

Yet there may be a few hurdles even to seeing Huppert receive an Oscar nomination. “Elle” is directed by Paul Verhoeven, the controversy-courting filmmaker of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” In the film, Huppert plays a woman who after being raped in her home becomes engaged in a tricky, shifting dynamic of power and head games as she uncovers the identity of her attacker. Though Times critic Justin Chang called it a “brilliantly booby-trapped thriller,” the movie is purposefully ambiguous, leaving viewers uncertain of what to think of Huppert’s character or her actions.

The film also won the Globe for foreign language film Sunday night, and though it was France’s official submission for the foreign language Oscar, it was recently left off the shortlist of nine titles still competing for the five nomination slots. So at least some contingent of Oscar voters have already expressed their lack of support for the film.

In accepting the foreign language Globe on Sunday night, Verhoeven noted, “I am a bit amazed, because the movie does not really invite you to sympathize with the character; the character goes in directions that you might not take.”

After thanking other collaborators in the film, Verhoeven added, “and in the center of it all, Isabelle Huppert… I thank you, Isabelle, for everything you have given to this movie, for your talent, for your audacity, for your authenticity of performance.”

Huppert has been supporting the film on the festival circuit since its premiere in May at the Cannes Film festival, on through appearances in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles, where she received a career tribute at the AFI Fest. In person, she has often been warmer and funnier than her often stony screen persona might imply, which perhaps made it less of a surprise that she was so breathlessly emotional after winning the Globe, at one point noting while speaking in English, “Oh, my God, I’m losing my words.”

In thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn, noting its philanthropic work,  she added, “thank you for making me win in a French film directed by a Dutch director, here in America… There are people from all over the world here in this room, from China to the Arabic world, from America to Europe. Do not expect cinema to set up walls and borders.”

In a backstage press room after her win, Huppert was asked if anything scared her and she responded, “In movies, not anything scares me. The most scary things are, ultimately, the most rewarding -- it all depends on with whom you do it. And doing it with Verhoeven, didn’t scare me. Truth never scares me, never.”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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