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As Isabelle Huppert marks 50 years in front of the camera, her latest film, The Godmother, offers her the chance to create another layered, complex character. By Andy Hazel.

French actor Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert.
Credit: Philippe Quaisse / UniFrance

Some artists possess so much charisma and confidence that they could be stars in any medium they choose. Others, such as the actor Isabelle Huppert, sublimate that charisma and confidence into their craft. Huppert’s career runs to more than 150 film roles and dozens of television and stage credits, a legacy of performances that has earned acclaim that is at once incidental, obvious and unarguable.

She’s the subject of interviews with titles such as, “Isabelle Huppert: ‘I don’t have a reputation for being difficult’ ” and “Isabelle Huppert: ‘I feel so far from being intimidating’ ”, which makes it difficult not to feel trepidation when, a little after midnight, she accepts my Zoom call.

Huppert’s face immediately evokes the dozens of roles she has inhabited and specifically unsettling scenes. Her Oscar-nominated role as Elle in Paul Verhoeven’s film of the same name, in which she casually mentions to a group of friends over dinner how, the previous Thursday, she had been beaten and raped by a masked intruder. There was also the eerie impassivity with which she accepted the news that her nine-year-old son wanted to be known by a new name and live with an unknown woman he referred to as his real mother, in Raul Ruiz’s Comedy of Innocence. Then there was the visceral denouement of obsessive sadomasochism in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.

“I don’t see the risk in the roles I have played,” says Huppert, her French accent cutting through the low static of our call. “People say I am edgy or steely or there is danger, but for me it is all normal. If I saw risk, I wouldn’t do it.”

Huppert sits in a brown suede chair to the far left of the frame. Her shoulders are narrow, her cheekbones form perfectly symmetrical ridges beneath skin just on the impossible side of naturally pale. Attentively applied black nail polish, cascading russet hair and a rich, even voice give her the appearance of a woman yet to let her heart lead her head. Her sentences, no matter how halting or hesitant, finish with the sense of a scarf flung over their shoulder.

Over the course of our interview, Huppert occasionally grips the arm of her chair, pushing herself forward as if she is physically struggling to remain seated. Her eyes widen as I ask each question and she answers with an outsized gesture or an exaggerated sigh, as if she needs to expel accumulated energy in order to anglicise her thoughts.

Her latest film, The Godmother – a French crime caper that could add to her record 16 César Award nominations – is released in Australia this week. The film is called La Daronne or “The Mother” in Europe and Mama Weed elsewhere. Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a French–Arabic translator who helps a Paris narcotics team catch hashish traffickers before switching sides to become a dealer. Despite a social media backlash sparked by initial images from the film showing Huppert wearing a hijab and speaking Arabic to disguise her criminal behaviour, it has been a big box-office success in Europe.

“When you make a film, no matter what you have to do, even with a simpler character it is always an elaboration of a metaphorical mask,” says Huppert. “You create another yourself within yourself, and that process is always very inspiring and exciting. In the beginning what was interesting about this character is that she is…” – she trails off searching for the right word – “...not really fragile, but invisible. You don’t really pay any attention to her. And all of a sudden – well, she remains quite invisible otherwise she would get caught – she shows what she is capable of.”

When Huppert plays a woman who is introduced as undervalued and overlooked, it’s not surprising to discover that her character holds hidden depths. It is these depths that attract her to the role. To become Patience, Huppert says, she followed her very specific kind of curiosity.

“In French we say, curiosité est un mauvais défaut, which means ‘curiosity is a nasty default’,” she says. “When I go to people’s houses I like to peer, to go into the bedrooms and see everything in the apartment.” She smiles, her eyes widening as if testing me before pausing. “No, I’m kidding! Of course, I am curious, but not to learn this way, though. I just like to know, because I never thought I was learning anything from doing movies or acting. It’s not about my view of relationships between people, but knowing. Just knowing, and hearing.” These elements, she explains, create what she calls “the interiority”, which guides her performance.

“How do you learn?” I ask.

“I read,” she replies curtly, as if the answer is self-evident. “I read and I think. Acting is something very different. For La Daronne, I read the book first, before the director, Jean-Paul Salomé, asked me to do it. And I read the book exactly for what it is, which is a thriller and a comedy, but above all I think it is a portrait of a woman. I wanted to make sure that the film would be as close as possible to this woman’s journey. She really had to exist as a character and not just as an element of a comedy or an element of a thriller. The base of the role had to be strong and emotional and deep, otherwise I think the movie would be less interesting and she would be more like a puppet.”

 

Born and raised in Paris, Huppert has been working consistently since her first appearance in a French made-for-television film in 1971, the year in which she also made her stage debut. Throughout the next five decades, viewers have been drawn to her ability to make ambiguity compelling, to react to scenes of murder, passion, madness, motherhood, familial abandonment, sexual violence and suicidal urges in utterly unexpected ways. As she told journalist Husam Sam Asi, “For me, a character does not exist. It is an arbitrary invention and it gives you limitations. Acting is much more than this. When I act I want to be free, not limited.”

Huppert found much of the freedom she sought on stage. She is best known to Australian theatre audiences for her 2013 performance alongside Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in Benedict Andrews’ production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at the Sydney Theatre Company. Following her role in the 1995 Claude Chabrol film La Cérémonie, it was the second time Huppert starred in a production based on the true story of Christine and Léa Papin, sisters who worked together as housekeepers for a wealthy family whom they murdered.

Huppert won international plaudits for 4:48 Psychosis, British playwright Sarah Kane’s vivid depiction of a woman suffering a breakdown. It’s a text that has been played by between one and 12 actors, and in Claude Régy’s production Huppert performed it as almost a solo piece. She remained motionless, reeling through the French dialogue in a monotone beneath surtitles describing her deteriorating state of mind.

Huppert says there is no major difference between preparing a role for the stage or the screen. “These kinds of differences don’t really exist anymore,” she tells me. “I feel exactly the same person and the same acting person on the stage or on a movie set. But also, a stage is a stage, it is what it is. A movie set is a movie set too, but a movie set takes you to an infinity of situations, so it’s really not to be compared.”

She seems to be contradicting herself, so I ask if 4:48 Psychosis and The Godmother were similar processes. She pauses. “No, I can’t say that.” She laughs at the idea. “You’ve really taken the two extreme points of the thread. 4:48 Psychosis is so special. It was so abstract. I would compare it more closely to an experience I would do with Bob Wilson, for example, with whom I did my last play, Mary Said What She Said, a monologue about the life of Mary Stuart. But 4:48 Psychosis was very, very special.”

She slows, as if caught in remembrance. “The shape of the words. It was really ... the distillation of the performance was extreme ... extreme. But I did not withdraw the emotion, I think it was highly emotional. It was the director Claude Régy’s input that made it completely apart from anything else I have done. Like living a hallucination.” She returns from her reverie with a smile. “But I like the comparison [between 4:48 Psychosis and The Godmother] very much.”

She briefly makes eye contact with the camera before looking away. “If I had to find a theme in my work, I would say that I am drawn to vulnerable characters. People often tell me my characters are cold or unlikeable, but the vulnerability is what makes them interesting to me.”

As the worlds of cinema and television continue to merge and grow steadily more global, producers increasingly demand that characters possess cross-cultural relatability. Despite this, Huppert has continued to pursue complex characters. Even her smaller roles in films such as I Heart Huckabees, Amour or 8 Women are striking for how they skirt historically gendered qualities such as likeability or maternalism. Perhaps more than any other screen presence, Huppert embodies the Kuleshov effect, a film editing experiment in which footage of an actor’s impassive face is cut between various objects that results in the audience inferring emotion from what the actor is “seeing”.

“In an actor’s life, you take whatever good comes to you and most of the time that is rare,” she says. “I don’t think in terms of, ‘should I do a lighter film after having done two very dark films?’ I think in terms of encounters with different directors. For me, that is the key piece to the ensemble. Then comes the script, then comes the role. What I really care about is that encounter. I did seven films with Claude Chabrol, he never gave me direction. Not once. For Elle, Paul Verhoeven and I never discussed what we were going to do. We discussed the shoes and the clothing – which is very important because these are the most immediate clues you give to the spectator, and it makes you understand the character – but never the character.”

Conversely, roles in the television series Call My Agent! and the 2017 film Reinventing Marvin have featured Huppert playing herself, riffing on the perception that she is an intimidating and unapproachable workaholic. She laughs this off as being the cumulative result of her roles, unsure how she could possibly come across as unnerving offscreen. Unlike many women who have reached a similar level of renown and control over their career, “the Meryl Streep of France” is yet to produce or direct a film.

“Why haven’t I directed? It’s a good question,” she says slowly, as if pondering the idea for the first time. “I feel quite fulfilled as an actress so I would maybe try to be a director. But not out of wanting to say something, more out of curiosity. To ask, ‘how would I say this differently if I were the director?’ Yes,” she says firmly, as if making up her mind, “it would be curiosity more than a real need. Curiosity like ... peeping through a door.”

She smiles, returning to the question. “I don’t really see myself as a director because I don’t feel I am part of the final direction of a film. In my own intimate processes I am clearly my own director, but of an invisible film that nobody will ever see.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Mother of invention".

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Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.