Isabelle Huppert Lives from Scene to Scene

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Just north of the city center of Bordeaux, on the bank of the wide, sluggish Garonne River, lies the Cité du Vin, a spectacular museum dedicated to the global history of wine. Opened in 2016 at a cost of eighty million euros, the building has a dazzling exterior, with a tower of what looks like swirling green-gold glass rising above a gleaming coil. When Isabelle Huppert’s car pulled up outside around noon on a recent Monday, she gasped with surprise at the splendor, and hastened toward the entrance to explore.

Huppert, who is perhaps France’s most celebrated actor on the stage and the screen, had been based in Bordeaux for about seven weeks, shooting a movie with the director Patricia Mazuy. She and Mazuy first worked together almost a quarter of a century ago, on “Saint-Cyr,” a period drama in which Huppert plays Madame de Maintenon, the secret wife of King Louis XIV. She was nominated for a César Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar—one of sixteen such nominations since her first, in 1976. (She has won twice, most recently for the lead role in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” as a rape victim who develops a consensual sexual relationship with her assailant.) In Mazuy’s new film, tentatively titled “Portraits Trompeurs,” Huppert was cast not as a noble but as a contemporary bourgeois woman. She was co-starring with Hafsia Herzi, a French actress of Tunisian and Algerian descent. “It’s a story about two women whose husbands are in jail, and we come from two different social backgrounds, and we become friends,” Huppert had explained, in fluent English, earlier in the morning when I met her in her trailer on set.

Huppert had spent little time in Bordeaux before arriving to make this film, and had enjoyed hardly any downtime since. On weekends, she had been shuttling back to Paris to prepare for her forthcoming appearance onstage in Stockholm, as Mary Stuart in Robert Wilson’s production of “Mary Said What She Said”—a revival of a play she first performed in Paris, in 2019, and which she will also be taking to the Barbican, in London, in the spring. “Actually, I have another theatre piece I am preparing for next spring, with the Italian director Romeo Castellucci,” she told me, slightly sheepishly. “It’s all a bit too much together.” Huppert is famously prolific; she regularly makes upward of three films a year, with a catalogue of a hundred and fifty-plus credits over a career that has spanned more than five decades. In 2018, she appeared in an episode of “Call My Agent!,” the popular French sitcom about the workings of a Parisian talent agency, which features actors playing themselves in fictional scenarios. The premise of Huppert’s episode is that she has been double-booked for two movies; she’s making an American film by day and a French costume drama by night. When production demands necessitate her being on both sets at the same time, the agency’s chief has to race her across town in a car without either director noticing her absence. When I pointed out that her current commitments had a touch of “Call My Agent!” about them, Huppert said, dryly, “In fact, I mainly contributed in person to make it a lot worse than it is in reality.” A particularly delicious moment in the episode comes when Huppert, on the way from one set to another, is reminded by a call on her cell phone that she is actually triple-booked; she insists on stopping off at a radio station for a live interview to which she has committed. “Time is crucial in my line of work—the duration of a shot, the pace of the narrative . . . the duration of a gaze,” she tells her interviewer in slow, measured tones, as a hapless agent waits in the parking garage. “That was very funny,” Huppert agreed.

The morning’s scene on Mazuy’s film had required little time to complete, and, after a couple of hours on location, Huppert was no longer needed. She’d changed out of her character’s clothes (dark-wash jeans, cashmere sweater, heeled brown boots, long wool coat, silk scarf—the conventional attire of an affluent French matron) and into her own, far more bohemian-chic outfit of wide-leg black pants paired with a close-fitting rust-colored sweater and pale-pink sneakers, over which she wore a mustard-colored, belted rainproof coat. She was at liberty, other than this, her commitment to an interview. It was still too early for lunch, so why not pay a visit to the nearby museum?

Huppert was born into a well-to-do family in Paris in 1953. The youngest of five children, she joined an acting conservatory as a teen-ager; by eighteen, she had made her film début. In the decades since, she has worked with a dizzying array of auteurs—Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Claude Chabrol—and established herself as, among other things, the preëminent depicter of unorthodox, occasionally monstrous women. Huppert’s wide-eyed voraciousness for the new is, along with the preternatural stamina satirized in “Call My Agent!,” a driving force in her career. Her scope ranges across genres, from comedies—like the forthcoming “The Crime Is Mine,” directed by François Ozon, a screwball caper set in the nineteen-thirties in which she plays a glamorous but superannuated silent-movie star—to complex psychological dramas, including Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” a 2001 adaptation of a novel by Elfriede Jelinek in which she plays a music instructor beset by sadomasochistic fantasies. (At a drive-in movie, she peers into the car of a pair of copulating young people; in a booth at a porn cinema, she sniffs the discarded Kleenex of men who have emitted there.)

Huppert’s fearless embrace of the complexities of her characters’ desires has won her numerous awards and accolades, but her instinct to interrogate extends well beyond her work. Within minutes of our meeting, she was peppering me with questions about what was going on culturally in London, where I live. The director Ira Sachs, who cast Huppert in the 2019 film “Frankie” as a famous French actress confronting a terminal illness, told me, “Isabelle is curious and open and thoughtful and alive. She lives very much in the present. You’re directing her, and you feel like she’s never been on another movie set. She doesn’t carry her past with her at all. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t interesting to her. Her drive and ambition are not dominated by a desire for fame. It’s for experience.”

Hungry for experience, if not yet for lunch, at the Cité du Vin, Huppert collected her audio guide from a clerk and entered the first handsomely appointed exhibition space. Three enormous L.E.D. screens displayed gorgeous vistas of vineyards around the globe, illustrating the universality of viniculture—and offering Huppert a scrolling list of countries in which she has filmed movies. China: “The first time, I was just invited to the French Embassy, and another time I did readings there. I was reading ‘The Lover,’ by Marguerite Duras. It was amazing. Wonderful audiences.” Canada: “No, but I was onstage.” French Polynesia: “No, but I wish.” Australia: “Yes, and I even went to Adelaide.” Japan: “Many times.” Hungary: “I’ve worked, I’ve been.” Also, naturally, Saint-Émilion, in France: “I was there a week ago, because we shot in a house, and the inhabitants of this house are friends of mine, and they took me to Saint-Émilion, which is near Bordeaux.” Did she have some good wine there? “Well, yes,” Huppert told me. “But, to be honest, I am not a great wine specialist. And often I prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux. Burgundy is sometimes lighter.” When the video reached its end, she wanted to watch from the beginning, in case she’d missed anything.

When Huppert takes on a role, she enters it as if arriving in a new country without having read a guidebook, alert to its strangeness and fascinated by its distinctiveness. “Sometimes I read these interviews with actors who say they prepare, and they imagine the characters’ background, and family, and where they come from,” she told me. “Well, it’s not my way of doing it. To begin with, I don’t believe in the idea of playing a character. I just believe in the idea of playing states—joy, sadness, laughter, listening, talking. That’s all I think about. In order to have the fiction come through you, you have to get rid of the idea of a character. The character is like a prison. And you could go further in that way of thinking—since it’s not a character, I don’t need to know anything about her.”

This is not to say that Huppert does not prepare before taking on a role, only that the most important aspects of her preparation lie in the decisions about what clothes she will wear, or how her hair and makeup will be done. For that morning’s scene, her light-auburn hair had been artfully curled and tousled by her longtime hairdresser, Frédéric Souquet. (“It’s my hair, only maybe a little bit better,” she told me.) Her dewy makeup was by Thi-Loan Nguyen, who has worked with Huppert regularly since the mid-nineties. With practical details like these taken care of, “then there is a kind of opening,” Huppert explained. “Because that’s what movies are about, you know—to capture the present time. So you have to be as naked as possible, to absorb this immediacy.”

The next section of the museum was a series of small rooms titled the “Gallery of Civilisations,” which examined past cultures through the prism of their manufacture and use of wine. One room was designed to evoke the triclinia of Boscoreale, which were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. “Pompeii—I did a movie in Pompeii, ‘Entre Nous,’ with Diane Kurys,” Huppert recalled. A gallery about the consumption of wine in early modern Europe featured a Vermeerish print showing a young woman drinking from a glass; Huppert granted the reproduction all the attention she might have given a masterwork in the Louvre. As it happens, her film career first took off when, in 1977, she starred in a movie named for a Vermeer painting, “The Lacemaker,” playing an eighteen-year-old shop assistant who enters a relationship with a more sophisticated student of literature.

Roger Ebert wrote of “The Lacemaker” that Huppert’s most remarkable skill was “the very difficult task of projecting the inner feelings of a character whose whole personality is based on the concealment of feeling.” The observation is one that has been repeated by others throughout her career, both in praise of Huppert—Chabrol once said of her that “she has this extraordinary gift of expressing things without changing her face”—and to her detriment. Pauline Kael, in a disparaging review of Huppert’s performance as an affectless prostitute in Godard’s “Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie),” in 1980, wrote that “she just gives you a little glimmer of something that is so small and wan no camera yet invented could turn it into an emotion.” Huppert’s famed blankness is a carefully considered artistic choice. “I really think that to be, to act, in a movie is more about withdrawing than adding,” she told me. “When you look at people in life, they do very little. Most of the time you feel, because you are acting, that you have to do a little bit more. But in fact you have to do a little bit less, in order to be more close to reality.”

Huppert’s latest movie, “La Syndicaliste,” released in the U.S. this past weekend, is based on the true story of Maureen Kearney, a union leader in France’s nuclear-energy sector who was accused of faking her own violent sexual assault after fighting to draw attention to industry skulduggery. (Kearney was sentenced and later cleared of all charges of fabrication). One of Huppert’s signature blank-face moments comes at a midpoint in the film, when Kearney, seated at a desk in a police station, is informed that rather than being considered a victim of a crime—she is discovered by her cleaning lady having been bound to a chair, hooded and gagged, with a knife inserted handle first into her vagina—she is under suspicion of having staged it herself. “I immediately saw the potential of the role, in the sense that it was really interesting to play the double face of the character: the face of those who believe her, and the face of those who do not believe,” Huppert said. True to form, as she prepared, she made no attempt to meet the real Kearney, focussing instead on aesthetics. In the film, Huppert wears a blond wig in a chignon; her bright-red lipstick is a form of armor, and she dresses in power suits and high heels. (Although Huppert never stops looking like herself, the resemblance is remarkable.) “She has this Hitchcockian blond hair—very cinematic,” Huppert said. “And she is dressed up in a way you do not expect a syndicaliste to be dressed up. You feel like sometimes, in a clumsy way, she wants to resemble other people—like she’s putting on a uniform of someone she is not.”

What drew Huppert to the project, she went on, was the same urge that attends the best work that comes her way: “When you can build up your own little story within the official script. The great roles, and the great films, are where you can hide yourself in this secret place.” The audience of “La Syndicaliste” is also induced to wonder whether Kearney’s assault is real or an elaborate setup. The ambiguity of the situation is enhanced by Huppert having been cast in the role, given her history of playing individuals who have either on some level invited sexual violence, in the case of “The Piano Teacher,” or gone on after a sexual violation to explore its enactment in a consensual arrangement, as in “Elle.” An investigator’s irritated observation that Kearney “doesn’t act like a rape victim” might just as easily have applied to other Huppert characters.

Huppert did not think about the parallels in advance. “It really didn’t occur to me that I had done something similar before,” she said. “Actors don’t have all these images in mind. We don’t carry all of this. We are not spectators of our own work.” The darkness that may come with a particular role—the abuse, or the violence, or the self-destructive sexual desire—doesn’t linger after the camera has finished rolling, she explained. “Being an actor is what most people say they feel when they are being attacked: dissociation,” she told me. “It’s neither bad nor good—you are like an instrument when you do it, and it does not really affect you.” She can dissociate on set all day, and then go home for dinner and be totally fine? “Of course, because it’s nice to do it,” she said. “Even the worst thing, it’s nice.”

Over the years, Huppert has worked with several directors repeatedly: she made seven films with Chabrol, and four with Haneke. Lately, one of her most frequent collaborators has been the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, with whom she first worked on “In Another Country,” in 2012, playing three different French women, all named Anne, who find themselves in domestic propinquity to the inhabitants of a seaside town in Korea. This summer, she made her third film with Hong. Hours before she got on the plane to Seoul, she’d gone shopping for the outfit she would wear in character; she showed me an image on her cell phone of herself in a light floral dress and a big straw hat. “He always has me play the same kind of character—like, a little clown, discovering the country,” she said. Huppert enjoys Hong’s approach, she explained, “because there is no story and there is no character—there is just the reaction to whom you are talking to, and to what you learned to say two hours ago, and that’s it.” His shoots are very abbreviated: the first film took nine days, the second one six days. The most recent film was long: “It was thirteen days, which is a lot for him.” She went on, “There is no one like him—he is very special. He is his own producer—no script, no team, nothing. But it’s a certain idea of cinema. It says how cinema can be small and big.”

The compression of her work with Hong is almost singular, but one gets the sense, speaking to Huppert, that she would like always to work that way—to be thrown into a new project without too much thinking it over in advance. From scene to scene within a movie, she explained, she does not know where her instincts and skills will take her. “Most of the time, what you do is completely unexpected, and that’s what’s really exciting about it,” she told me. “You just do it as you do it.” (More than once, this has made her the highlight of an otherwise middling film; as Manohla Dargis wrote of “La Syndicaliste,” in the Times, “Sometimes the best reason to watch a movie is because Isabelle Huppert is in it.”) Huppert does not reflect upon her long back catalogue, and being invited to reckon with the fact that she has been around long enough to make as many movies as she has produces in her a visceral reaction. “I don’t even want to think about it—it’s horrible,” she told me. “Since I was born, I was already regretting the day before. Oh, my God! The most vivid and oldest memories of my consciousness are: I’m already two years old, and I wish I could be one year old.” She added, “I think that doing what I do is also about the present moment. It’s the most exhilarating thing, being always in the present—that is what making movies is about. So I think I have found a good solution, and a good medicine.”

Huppert descended upon one last display at the Cité du Vin: an interactive quiz intended to determine what kind of wine she most resembled. Rave/Film/Theatre? Countryside/Forest/Desert? Circle/Triangle/Square? The quiz offered little time for reflection, and Huppert jabbed at the buttons. The results flashed up, and she read aloud, “No matter how old you are, you will always remain young at heart.” She retained a note of skepticism in her voice, though the summary seemed at least partially to have captured her personality. She was, it said, “bright, flamboyant, stunning the world. You radiate like a ruby, bursting with aromas of blackcurrant, raspberry, and spices. You have a strong penchant for sugar, for pleasures, spiritual as well as carnal. Capricious in nature, flavorful and potent, you let nothing and no one resist you.” She seemed amused but ultimately nonplussed by her designation as “the most famous Portuguese fortified wine, a Ruby Port.” After all, she had come to the museum to learn about wine, not to learn about herself. Did the summary make sense to her? “I’m not sure,” she said, warily. “I mean, I like champagne.”

Finally: lunchtime. At a restaurant high in the museum’s glass tower, overlooking the city, Huppert ordered a tartare of beets and tiny morsels of mackerel confit, and slurped a naked egg yolk from a deep spoon. She was warm, thoughtful, funny, and even playful. She talked about the terrors of working on the stage: “Whenever you do it, you say, ‘What could be worse than doing it for the first time, for the opening night?’ And the answer is, to die. And so you say, ‘Well, it’s better to do an opening night than dying.’ ” The experience of making movies, she said, is the complete opposite: “It’s neither doing it nor dying. It’s just being completely numb with anesthesia before an operation.” She reflected on the joy of being cast by a director, and the misery of being overlooked or rejected. “It’s always a little miracle, when someone elects you—because it’s like an election. It’s very spiritual, why someone wants you,” she said. “And why someone doesn’t want you, it’s worse!” She drank a glass of red wine from Burgundy, and noted the challenges of filming love scenes and sex scenes, of which she has done more than her fair share, without an intimacy coördinator. “I see certain situations in which actresses are being put, and I say to myself, My God, they are being asked a lot,” she said. “But, if I go further in my thinking, it is not so much a moral point of view as an aesthetic point of view. It’s so impossible to film—in some sense representation fails. It’s the limit of the image.” At the meal’s conclusion, she ordered an espresso with a splash of milk. A waitress brought forth a plate bearing a pink macaron and a miniature lemon-meringue pie, of which Huppert ate the interiors while leaving the outsides intact, like discarded shells. “That is my philosophy: to eat the middle,” she said, with satisfaction.

What else is her philosophy? Huppert recalled Ira Sachs’s observation that she came to set each day as if it were for the first time. “That’s basically my conclusion—I know nothing about anything,” she said. Among the classical forms of “physical expression,” she argued, “acting has a strange status. It has nothing to do with being a dancer, or being a singer, or being an acrobat.” The craft requires voice, but not song; movement, but not dance. “It’s a little bit of not being able to do this, not being able to do that, and then you take it—as in cooking, when you take the leftovers from the preceding evening and you put them all back together. And it can be very good.” The definition was a useful one, she felt, as well as being appropriately modest. I pointed out that lots of things taste better the next day. “Oui, c’est vrai,” she said, neatly. “Absolument.” Hers was the perfect metaphor to pair with the wine. ♦


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