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The misunderstood Ms Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert attends the Cannes photocall for Frankie

Isabelle Huppert attends the Cannes photocall for Frankie  

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The veteran French actor speaks her mind and people often confuse her with the ‘scary women’ she plays on screen. But there’s another side to her, as we find out at the International Film Festival of India in Goa

Even off-screen, Isabelle Huppert generates a divided house. All those who’ve seen her speak live, have a strong opinion of the notoriously unpredictable French actor. “She’s so arrogant,” puffed a journalist, right after exiting her masterclass with film critic Anupama Chopra in Goa. “Is she, though?” retorted another. “Maybe she just doesn’t want to share her acting secrets,” came a third opinion. From the press room to a casual dinner the following evening, Huppert was still being deconstructed by all those who’d heard her speak at the 50th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

The previous day, Huppert, 66, was awarded the lifetime achievement award at the festival’s opulent opening ceremony in a Panaji stadium, where she was overshadowed by the fandom of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth. “Maybe she was still pissed at that,” remarks someone casually, before Huppert was about to interact with four journalists — after walking the red carpet of Elle, which was screened in her tribute. Her role as a rape victim in the provocative 2016 psychodrama had won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

A still from The Piano Teacher

A still from The Piano Teacher  

Role play

As we wait for her in the all-white interiors of a heritage building outside a Panaji cinema hall, a word of caution enters the room before the actor: “Don’t ask for individual interviews, she might say no bluntly”. Through a small group of towering IFFI organisers, who refer to her as ‘madame’, a modestly-sized Huppert emerges. A weather-appropriate white floral dress, a white clutch and glamorously large shades lend her the air of a French movie star, who has won the best actress award at Cannes twice (for Violette Nozière and The Piano Teacher). She takes off her glasses, drags her bulky sofa chair closer and looks straight at me, expecting the first question. Oh boy, I think, with memories resurfacing of a stoic and reserved Huppert at the 2018 Berlinale première of Eva. In the Benoît Jacquot directorial, she plays an enigmatic prostitute, in tandem with the ‘scary women’ characters that she’s known to play.

But, as the interview proceeds, she takes me by surprise. She not only grins and nods, but at one point, begins to giggle at her own joke. “The other day I read a funny statistic, that you will have to wait 250 years for women and men to become completely equal, in all fields. Good luck!” she claps and falls back with uproarious laughter. Is this a trap? Seemingly not. She’s perhaps just in a mood to indulge us, but without really letting her guard down.

The misunderstood Ms Isabelle Huppert

The actor can somehow manage to do that. Even when you think she’s being open, she’s really holding something back. Huppert believes that she is rather misunderstood and is often confused with her characters. Over the years, she has played an eclectic range of roles including that of a masochist and voyeur in The Piano Teacher, a bitter and jealous postmaster in La Cérémonie (1995), a murderous prostitute in Violette Nozière (1978), and recently, a crazy handbag lady in Greta (2018). “People aren’t bad, it is the situations around them that are,” she says. “They are just trying to survive, whether it is social or political situations.” And it is not just French cinema. She has also acted in German, Italian, Korean and English-language productions such as In Another Country (2012), Milana (1991), The Elective Affinities (1996), Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Bedroom Window (1987).

“Maybe because I’ve worked in so many languages, I had more shots at Cannes,” the actor had speculated at the masterclass earlier. She’s had over 19 films competing at the French Riviera. “Or maybe I have a connection there,” she’d added, garnering no reaction from the audience. “I am kidding,” she’d mumbled, as the crowd nervously laughed, unable to distinguish her sarcasm from her seriousness. She delivers her dry humour with such a straight-face.

Greg Germain and Isabelle Huppert in Violette Nozière

Greg Germain and Isabelle Huppert in Violette Nozière  

Character central

Since her début in 1972, Huppert has appeared in over 120 films and has a record-holding 16 nominations for the César Award. “It is nice to get awards,” she says. “Cinema is a collective effort, first of all, so you take it for yourself, but you also take it for everybody around.”

At this year’s Cannes, all eyes were on the actor’s latest release, Frankie. Directed by noted American independent director, Ira Sachs, her role as a dying family matriarch organising a vacation for her extended family garnered positive reviews. Extremely vocal during the film’s promotion, Sachs commented that the film was written for the actor. Huppert says that even writer Philippe Djian thought of her as the central character when he wrote his novel, Oh…, which was later adapted into Elle. The demand for her is understandable, as she makes her complex (and often deranged) characters appear effortless. When it comes to talking about her craft, though, she describes her acting process in rather vague terms like “requires concentration”, “I value my freedom” and “you must have curiosity”.

If there’s one aspect of her job Huppert speaks about excitedly and has consistently kept in high regard, it is the relationship with her directors. In her nearly five-decade-long career, she has collaborated with celebrated names like Claude Chabrol, Benoît Jacquot, Werner Schroeter, Otto Preminger, Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Claude Goretta, and Mia Hansen-Løve. Anyone else on her list? “I wished to work with Alfred Hitchcock. But maybe I wasn’t blonde enough for him,” says the actor, who made her début (1971) five years prior to Hitchcock’s last directorial venture, Family Plot.

Huppert at IFFI

Huppert at IFFI   | Photo Credit: Gajender Singh

Mind the similes

Huppert takes a long time to accept a role, especially if it is a first-time filmmaker. She reads the script multiple times, so much so that she never has to read it again, once she is on-board. So, what are the criteria? “The dialogues are important because it helps the audience relate to me,” she reveals. “And the complexities and ambiguities of a character; I don’t like it if it is too sentimental.”

There’s a certain detachment with which she speaks about her roles. For her, acting is like wearing a raincoat — the emotions roll off like raindrops once she is out of it. “I feel nothing,” she smirks. “Making a movie is like going to summer camp, and I don’t identify enough with the characters to feel like an orphan once it is over.” Here is where she refers to Paradox of the Actor, a dramatic essay by Denis Diderot. “Acting for me is like writing a book,” she says. “You have a mask on, so it is about being known yet not being known.”

Way back in 2005, she’d collaborated with artiste Roni Horn on a series of a hundred photographs, sans make-up, each inspired by her various performances. Does visual art influence her as an actor? “I am a spectator,” she shrugs. “I never related my practice to what you just mentioned, modern art and paintings. I would maybe connect acting to music and rhythm more.”

That said, Huppert is quite a patron of the art form she enjoys the most: cinema. Back in Paris, she owns two cinemas, Christine 21 and Ecoles 21. She runs them with her husband, Ronald Chammah, and 33-year-old son, Lorenzo, and the focus is on classics. “Initially, [they] were mainly dedicated to American classics from the ’50s but now we are trying to make it broader, having partnerships with film festivals, and, hopefully, one day have Indian films,” she says, with a glint in her eyes.

A still from Elle

A still from Elle  

Just doing her job

Even if the big screen takes all her time, she always makes space for the stage. “I just finished a tour in Europe of Mary Said What She Said, a monologue of Mary, Queen of Scotland. And my next work will be in theatre again, a Tennessee Williams play,” she informs. Theatre, Huppert had once said, is like climbing a mountain, but doing a movie is like going for a nice ride. “I still stand by that,” she laughs, yet again. “Being in a play is a very weird situation; you are a living person in front of living people.”

For her, the only responsibility as an actor is to do good work. “I don’t think you send messages through films,” she says. “Like what Michael Haneke said, ‘If you want to send a message, you go to the post office’.” In that regard, Huppert prefers to live light, and not read too much into what she does. Perhaps her laissez-faire attitude towards interviews stems from that. “Acting is like driving a car,” she uses yet another simile. “When you are a good driver, you don’t even think about the gear.” If Huppert had a mic, she’d perhaps drop it and walk off. But for now, she gets up rather politely, bids us goodbye, and asks for a Darjeeling tea. Now that all the talking at the festival is over, she can enjoy her first visit to India, with a long holiday in sunny Goa.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:09:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/the-misunderstood-ms-isabelle-huppert/article30116516.ece

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