Isabelle Huppert interview / 'I want to understand insanity'
Isabelle Huppert interview: 'I want to understand insanity'
Isabelle Huppert, cinema’s queen of suffering, tells Gaby Wood why she is drawn to such extreme characters
Isabelle Huppert has been acting for more than 40 years – in France, she is the film industry’s queen, and (as Paris Match magazine recently put it) “un-dethronable”. Yet she still can’t quite work out how to describe what she does.
“My… occupation... my activity…” she says when we meet, struggling over what would seem to be a fairly basic reference. “It’s more than a profession,” she explains. “You can define what I do in so many different ways. And because it’s more than a profession, I was…”
Again, a hesitation.
“I was SOMETHING enough to make it a real field of experiment.”
I am trying to fill in the missing word – stupid enough? Crazy enough? Canny? – when Huppert adds: “… to make it almost autobiographical – like it would be to write a book.”
Huppert is so understated, and so refined in her affect, that it’s easy to miss the drama of what she suggests. This point she’s exploring, falteringly: can she really be saying there are autobiographical elements to be drawn from the roles she has played? Now 63, Huppert specialises in perversion and desire: murder, rape, self-mutilation; prostitution, adultery, transgressive sex. Many British filmgoers will especially remember her piano teacher, in Michael Haneke’s film of that name, who has a brutal affair with one of her students.
French viewers can hardly forget her as the energetic ringleader of a murderous duo in La Cérémonie, or as the syphilitic poisoner Violette Nozière – and in the back of their minds there may still be an echo of her ceremonial deflowering at the hands of Gérard Dépardieu, when she played a round-faced 16-year-old in the misogynistic road movie Les Valseuses. Earlier this year, the film critic for Le Monde singled out her passion for suffering. Huppert has, he wrote, “a sadomasochistic stubbornness of a kind we have probably never seen before in the history of French acting”.
Huppert has a reputation for being guarded about her private life. But – it occurs to me as she speaks – why would we need to know much about her private life? On film, she couldn’t be more exposed.
We are in a hotel in Marylebone. Huppert has a day off from shooting Happy End, her fourth film with Michael Haneke, and whatever the tribulations in that movie turn out to be, she seems entirely composed – petite and sleek in white jeans and a slim blazer, her face as pale and sculpted as we’ve come to know it.
Haneke has the eye of an entomologist
Her English is cerebral and articulate, with only the hint of an accent. She speaks a little bit about Haneke’s directorial precision (“he has really the eye of an entomologist”), before reminding me – gently, and somewhat regally – that I am supposed to be asking her about another film altogether.
Huppert never stops working. She films several movies a year – looking back at her career, you would be hard pressed to pinpoint, without the aid of a calculator, her three pregnancies – and when not on set she is often rehearsing for a theatrical performance. Earlier this year, she appeared at the Barbican in a production based on multiple versions of the Phaedra story.
Huppert plays Nathalie, a high school philosophy teacher on a losing streak. Her husband leaves her, her mother dies, her series of academic books is cancelled, and an encounter with a former protégé only reminds her of the extent to which she is part of a fading generation. And yet, the moral of the story seems to be that, as she puts it, “I’ve found my freedom”. Huppert tells me that almost all of Hansen-Love’s direction was to do with keeping her performance light. “My natural tendency would have been to drag the character towards something darker,” she admits.
People can be bad and good, sad and happy. Life is complex
Nathalie is almost entirely based on Hansen-Love’s mother – a philosophy teacher who, coincidentally, once taught Huppert’s own daughter, Lolita Chammah, now an actress. In those days, Huppert spoke to “Madame Hansen-Love” on the phone about her daughter. (“Was she in trouble?” I ask. “No. Yes,” comes the reply.)
But although her parents’ separation provided the plot, the director also wrote Things to Come with Huppert in mind. There was the Huppert she knew from the movies, of course, but there was also, she says, “the Isabelle Huppert that I had met away from the movies. There was a particular fragility and sort of tranquillity in total contrast to the tough cookies she often plays”. And yet a certain glacial quality remains. (The great film critic Pauline Kael once criticised Huppert by saying that “when she has an orgasm, it barely ruffles her blank surface”.)
I feel I’m a bit more than an actress
Huppert often returns to collaborate with the same director. Aside from her current fruitful series with Haneke, she made seven films with Claude Chabrol, five with Benoît Jacquot, three with Bertrand Tavernier, two with Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. She has worked with classic directors such as Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey. Yet to call her a muse would be misguided. If anything links these great filmmakers, it’s Huppert herself, who functions more as a kind of backer: she routinely supports young directors and directors from far afield (Korea, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, the Philippines). “I feel I’m a bit more than an actress,” she says.
And so it’s worth returning to her suggestion that her career shouldn’t be seen as a sequence of atomised performances but as a single ongoing inquiry. If what she’s done is, as she says, like writing a book, what kind of book would it be? A memoir? An investigation? Perhaps a study of the human mind, or a one-woman war on sentimentality.
In 1933, two maids named Christine and Léa Papin murdered the wife and daughter of their employer. Afterwards, the sisters were found in bed together naked. The Papin case was subsequently taken up by a number of French intellectuals, who applied to it a psychoanalytic lens (Jacques Lacan) or a political one (Jean-Paul Sartre), among others. It is the story on which Genêt’s play The Maids is based, and it’s also the inspiration behind Claude Chabrol’s film La Cérémonie. So Huppert has revisited it in two different versions over a number of years. Has she had any developing thoughts about that case?
“It’s the story of most of humanity – how all of a sudden, small people can rebel. That’s a natural movement: slaves want to become masters,” she replies. And then, more generally: “You know, the passage between a normal person to either an insane or a criminal one – it’s so difficult to conceive, and yet… That’s what this is about – how to understand people’s complexities, people’s ambiguities. How you can be bad and good, gentle and aggressive, sad and happy. It’s not that I get drawn to complex roles, it’s just that most of the time situations are complex in life.”
Inevitably, I ask Huppert whether psychoanalysis interests her, and – perhaps just as inevitably – she says, “No. Not really,” with a shutdown shrug.
In some ways, Huppert is a radical version of a Hitchcock blonde. (Chabrol, her most frequent collaborator, was often referred to as “the French Hitchcock”.) Hitchcock was famous for mistreating his actresses, and on screen they functioned as ciphers. Huppert has the same iconic inscrutability, and the same involvement in violence or perversion or suspense. But she is more of a collaborator in her work, and her characters have more agency – they are more often perpetrators than victims; sometimes they even turn victimhood into power.
“Yeah,” says Huppert, a Hitchcock fan, “that’s true.”
As for the rest of her life: she has bought a repertory cinema in Paris, now called Christine 21 (Action Christine updated for the 21st century), and the programming is being done by her son. Her youngest son is studying in the US, and her daughter – well, they’ve made a film together.
I ask if she had any concerns about Lolita becoming an actor, or whether she worried about a possible obsession with looks.
“No, not really,” she says. “Of course, being an actress has a lot to do with how you look. But it’s an ensemble. It’s so much also about what you feel. That’s the pleasure,” she explains, offering, off the cuff, what amounts to a manifesto. “You give a certain depth to appearance – it’s not to be taken as a burden, or a screen that would hide reality. No, it’s part of the territory.”