Isabelle Huppert has been nominated 15 times for the Césars, France's national film award. No other actress has been recognized more.
Yet she has never been nominated for an Oscar.
"It has crossed my mind," Huppert said over tea at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she, prolific as ever, has three movies playing. "It's a prestigious recognition. I think at some point it crosses everyone's minds. But it has never happened."
Partly, that's because the opportunities have been few. Huppert, 63, has worked mostly in France, partnering with such directors Claude Chabrol, François Ozon and Jean-Luc Godard. She just finished shooting her fourth movie with Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. When Huppert has worked in the States, it has been with similar, auteur filmmakers — Michael Cimino, David O. Russell, Curtis Hanson, Hal Hartley.
"I work with people in America that allow me to follow exactly the same line I've followed in France, meaning the director's choice before everything," Huppert says. "Some of them were successful, some were not, but they were in the same line as my body of work in France. Great directors."
Hupert's highest-profile turn that found its way into the Oscar conversation came in Haneke's 2002 domestic horror film, "The Piano Teacher," which won three awards at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival — picture, actor Benoît Magimel and, of course, Huppert. In it, she played a demanding music instructor leading a secret life of self-mutilation. It was a fearless, harrowing performance, unforgettable for anyone who saw it.
So why no Oscar nomination? Huppert believes she knows the reason, but she doesn't want to offer it on the record. In fact, she waits patiently for me to turn off my tape recorder before revealing it. Let's just say that if you have a dim view of the politics involved in Oscar campaigning, her story would make you grind your teeth.
At Toronto, there has already been early talk among voters in film critics circles about rewarding Huppert's superb year, which includes lead turns in Paul Verhoeven's "Elle" (Nov. 16 in Los Angeles, via Sony Pictures Classics) and Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come" (Dec. 2, IFC). (Her third film, a romance titled "Souvenirs," has no U.S. distributor yet.)
In "Elle," she plays a woman who is raped and decides to shift the power between the victim and the avenger. In "Things to Come," she's a philosophy professor rethinking her structured life after her husband leaves her.
The two movies are far apart in tone and circumstance, but Huppert sees common ground between the women who "take the power and do not victimize themselves."
"But they're not warriors, either, which is the other opposite stereotype from the victim," she adds. "They are not superficial characters. There is mystery to both of them."
Both Sony Pictures Classics and IFC plan to campaign hard on Huppert's behalf. Academy voters have shown a willingness in three of the past four years to go far afield in their lead actress choices — Emmanuelle Riva in 2012 for Haneke's "Amour," Marion Cotillard in 2014 for the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" and Charlotte Rampling last year for Andrew Haigh's "45 Years."
The companies handling those three films? Sony Pictures Classics and IFC.
Both movies earned enthusiastic responses at Toronto. The line for the first screening of "Things to Come" at the 1,250-seat Ryerson Theatre wrapped around the block — and then around another block. The provocative "Elle" packed the 1,500-seat Elgin the next day. Huppert was seated among the crowd, watching the movie for the first time since Cannes.
"Oh, my God, it played really well," she says. "People really paid attention and laughed in the right places. It's always better to see a movie anywhere on the big screen than on a television."
On that count, she is enough of a true believer to have purchased a cinema last year in the Latin Quarter of Paris, naming it Christine 21. Her son programs the theater.
"We don't sell popcorn," Huppert says. "Too much noise. Too distracting. When I go to the movies — and I'm a great moviegoer, there's nothing I love more — I want to forget myself and disconnect from the world."
So … no cellphones in her theater, either? Huppert shakes her head and smiles.
"I don't think I have the legal right to confiscate them," she says. "But they wouldn't dare take them out in my cinema anyway."