Isabelle Huppert doesn’t watch her past films, but she will discuss them
By Thomas Rogers
Isabelle Huppert isn’t fond of nostalgia. In her five-decade career, the 68-year-old French actress has appeared in over 120 films, including recurring collaborations with some of the most important filmmakers in postwar European cinema. Her ability to channel brittle vulnerability, intellectual forcefulness and icy hauteur (often simultaneously) in films like Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” have made her one of the few true superstars of international art house film.
The Berlin International Film Festival was to award her an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement Tuesday, which Huppert could not accept in person after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to a news release from the festival.
The festival will still celebrate her career by showing seven of her films, although Huppert said in a recent phone interview that she had little interest in looking back. She explained that the award was “as much about the present and the future than about the past.” She added that she rarely rewatched her old films: “I don’t have time to see new films. Why should I lose time watching my previous ones?”
Huppert’s schedule is almost comically packed. She has one film (“Promises”) currently in French cinemas and three more set for release in the coming months. Another, “About Joan,” is screening at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. She is shooting “The Union Lady” with French director Jean-Paul Salomé, and this year, Huppert is going on tour with two plays as well. She also revealed that she was slated to appear in the next film by François Ozon.
Nevertheless, Huppert said she saw the Golden Bear “as a recognition for the directors I’ve worked with.” With that in mind, the actress shared insights about her experiences working on the films being screened at the Berlin retrospective. Here are edited extracts from that conversation.
‘The Lacemaker’ (1977)
In this slow-paced drama directed by Claude Goretta, Huppert plays Pomme, a shy salon employee who embarks on a romance with a university student.
I had done films before, but this was the film that defined me as a young actress, because it was so much about interiority. It was a great role as a career starter — one of these roles that imprints itself on you. She is a young lady who does not speak much, who has a relationship with this intellectual. It was very dramatic and emotional, but it didn’t play with the seduction and physicality that is usually connected to young people.
I’ve never played soft characters. They were always very powerful and very intense. They could be silent, but they were never soft. She expresses herself more with looks and with her eyes and her physical attitude than with words. Cinema is the perfect medium for revealing the unsaid, and “The Lacemaker” is really about this.
‘Every Man For Himself’ (1980)
In this French New Wave classic by Jean-Luc Godard, Huppert portrays a prostitute navigating her clients’ absurd fantasies.
My character was a very unusual way to show a prostitute: I didn’t really look like what you’d expect, and there was a poetry to it. The movie is about money and bodies, not really about prostitution, and there was very little sexuality shown in front of the camera.
Godard has a special way of working: There was no script, and there were very few people, sometimes just images or music. We went to a shopping mall and bought our costumes. It went against all principles of organization and preparation. I wasn’t intimidated by Godard. I was never intimidated by anyone, at least no directors. If you are intimidated, things become impossible. I was always confident.
I like what Godard once said about me: “It’s visible when she is thinking.” That is probably one of the best compliments I’ve gotten in my life.
‘La Cérémonie’ (1995)
Huppert plays Jeanne, a postal worker in a small town with a grudge against a wealthy family, in this film by Claude Chabrol.
I’ve always worked with unsentimental directors who make no attempt to make people better than they are, and this was really Chabrol’s specialty. We were exactly in tune, like in music. He asked me which role I wanted, and I said the post office girl. Compared to some of the previous characters I had played, she was very talkative. She kills with words and speaks and speaks and speaks.
I don’t think much before I act. I just do it. It’s instinctive and very intuitive, and certainly I don’t have thorough discussions with the director beforehand. The relationship between a director and an actress is so powerful and fascinating. Why does a director want to film you? Why is he interested in what you are, your face, your body, your way of moving or talking? It’s unconscious and conscious, it’s an invisible and mute language, but it is a language. It’s what I cherish and love most about cinema.
‘The Piano Teacher’ (2001)
Directed by Michael Haneke, Huppert plays a Viennese piano teacher who has a boundary-pushing sadomasochistic relationship with a student.
Against all odds, Haneke is so easy to work with. He is very pragmatic and concrete. Even in the most daring scenes, the most incredible scenes, it’s about how to place the frame, it’s technical. Some scenes go quite far, but Haneke is a master of making the audience think they see things that he doesn’t show. His direction, his mise-en-scène is very protective for the actors. As an actress, I never felt exposed.
I don’t think when you do a film you go, “Oh my God, I’m going to do a provocative film.” Of course, it’s also a game, to go as far as you want, to show things people have difficulty watching. At the end of the day, it’s a very strange love story, but it’s also an exploration of the mystery of love and of how this woman wants to impose her own view of love.
‘8 Women’ (2002)
In François Ozon’s musical murder mystery with an all-star cast including Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant, Huppert portrays Augustine, an uptight woman with a secret.
That was my first time working with François Ozon, and “8 Women” was, of course, a comedy: He had all the characters sing and dance and be very funny, almost like caricatures of themselves — especially my character. On the set, there was none of the things people thought would happen with these eight women together — no competition, just great friendship and the pleasure of being together.
I’m not especially interested in being funny — there are comedies and there are dramas, and obviously I’m not going to tell you that some films are dramas if they are really comedies, but all of these movies have very funny moments. Maybe one of my contributions is to act as much as I can with a certain distance, which allows space for not necessarily a laugh, but for something very unsentimental.
‘Things to Come’ (2016)
Huppert plays a philosophy teacher navigating her husband’s infidelity and her mother’s declining health in this subtle drama from Mia Hansen-Løve.
I think this is one of Mia’s best films. I’m always walking in this film, because it’s a woman who doesn’t stop, whatever happens to her, even if it’s self-destructive, she could fall, she just keeps going. Of all the directors I’ve been talking about, Mia is probably the most directive. She was very specific in her direction, and what she said was very subtle, very accurate. I usually don’t like it when directors tell me too many things. Michael Haneke, Chabrol, Verhoeven, they never told me anything, not a word. I have no pride in saying this, it’s just the way it is.
For viewers, I can imagine this role seems a bit closer to [my offscreen self] than something like “The Piano Teacher.” Certainly in a geographic sense it is. I’m not Austrian or a piano teacher. But even when you are playing someone seemingly closer to who you are as a person, it’s still a fiction, it still has to go through the process of inventing the character.
In this provocative erotic thriller from Paul Verhoeven, Huppert plays a woman seeking a unique form of revenge after being raped in her home.
My character has a fight to win, but she has decided to win it alone, without the help of officials, the police, no psychological help. The way that it was filmed gave me incredible freedom. You can be funny, you can be dramatic, you can also keep that distance with your character, which is important again, never sentimental, and that gives you an extreme freedom when you do a character with a certain kind of insolence. It’s a real pleasure to be able to be as insolent as this. It gives you strength.
It’s funny to do a movie on the razor’s edge. We knew we were provoking people, which was very fun. I had no moments of doubt. The film is very clearly a revenge story, and the revenge is fulfilled. The guy dies at the end. I think if I was even a little bit sentimental when the guy dies, then it would go wrong. That was very important. It is a film that required coldness, that was the only morality that had to be upheld — coldness, including my own coldness as an actress. It’s what the piano teacher tells her young student: Coldness speaks to you, because there is a morality in coldness.