Cinema

THE ACTING QUEEN

ISABELLE HUPPERT ON HER LIFE AND THE ART OF METAMORPHOSIS

This iconic French actress with the unique versatility and talent for metamorphosing into her roles is adored all over the world and has won most major awards, including a Golden Globe for her provocative performance in Paul Verhoeven’s thriller Elle. Now, Isabelle Huppert is taking yet another acting risk: portraying a woman doomed to die in Ira Sachs’ new film Frankie.

 

It’s not easy describing the personality and acting talent of an actress who has practically won every acting award — sometimes twice. Her first César nomination came early in her career, for the film Aloïse, while sometime later, she won a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer for The Lacemaker. From there spans a dazzling career that includes winning best actress awards at the prestigious Cannes and Venice Film festivals — and a recent Golden Globe Award that would lead to her first Oscar nomination for Paul Verhoeven’s film Elle. In fact, Huppert is equally appreciated by both festival committees and critics — her masterful performance in Greta and Things To Come were widely acclaimed, earning her best actress awards from the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Every Huppert performance is a unique experience. Her recent appearance in the 2019 American-French drama, Frankie, directed by Ira Sachs, is a testament to her underlying ability to showcase hidden emotions and draw attention to the characters’ underlying personal dilemmas. The film’s premiere in the 2019 Cannes Festival was triumphant and earned accolades for Huppert. Written by Sachs’ longtime collaborator, Mauricio Zacharias, and lensed in the beautiful town of Sintra, Portugal, the film tells the painful yet brave journey of an actress who is terminally ill, and then has the heavy task of communicating it to her family and small circle of friends. She takes them to a trip in Portugal, in an attempt to communicate her vulnerability and create a safe environment for the loved ones that will be left behind.

Frankie is the latest of Huppert’s many collaborations with iconic directors, both in film and on stage. Before Frankie, she played the sociopath title character in Neil Jordan’s suspense thriller Greta, and later triumphed as Mary, Queen of Scots in the play May Said What She Said staged by director Robert Wilson. It’s this versatility that enables her to switch from the intimacy of film acting to Wilson’s unique theatrical symbolism. In her words: “Acting is really fascinating because it’s always ambiguous. It’s always difficult to tell the difference between something completely imaginary and something really true.”

Huppert’s acting abilities were recognized early on as unique, and brought her a series of collaborations with the most iconic film directors or our time. She made her television debut with Le prussien and her film debut in Faustine et le bel été .Her international break came when she was recruited by Michael Cimino for his big-budget Hollywood film, Heaven’s Gate. From there, she embarked in a series of work with the most prominent nouvelle vague representatives, including Godard and Chabrol. She excelled in complicated roles, which she attributes to her insatiable curiosity and need to explore new territories and learn new things.

It’s this prolific versatility that has, in fact, made Huppert something of an acting phenomenon. Her extensive range of roles covering many different genres is impressive. She can express the deepest human emotions while communicating the underlying conflicts of her characters. During her prolific career, she has excelled in more than 120 roles — from the timid, masochistic musician in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, to the impulsive nihilist in David O’Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, to her first Oscar nomination for Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Elle, where she plays a rape victim seeking revenge. She’s never refused any challenge or shied away from a complex role, often exploring the female psyche in all its fragility and ambiguity. “I just think in my roles I try to explore as many complexities as possible in feminine behavior,” she explains.

It’s this very versatility and perfectionism that have led her to be sought after by the world’s most iconic film and theatre directors, including the Taviani brothers in Italy, Michael Haneke in Austria, and Hong Sang-soo and Brillante Mendoza in Asia. Further experimenting with TV productions, she appeared in the 11th-season finale of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — an unexpected yet interesting choice. She also made an appearance in Marc Fitoussi’s Call My Agent! series as herself, in an episode aptly titled “Isabelle.”

And while working all over the world has always been the Huppert way of operating, her most recent collaborations have a strong American accent. Her collaborations with Ira Sachs on the film Frankie marks Huppert’s first English-language entry in competition at Cannes since Heaven’s Gate. She has also reunited with groundbreaking American theatre director Robert Wilson for his one-woman show, Mary Said What She Said’, and then masterfully switched gears to play herself in the TV comedy Call My Agent! It’s an acting range that many couldn’t pull off — but Huppert does it easily. After all, it’s in her. “Everything I do as an actress is really the story of the scorpion who can’t avoid stinging the frog,” she once said. “It’s just my nature, you know?”

                                           Q&A

You have worked in many different countries, with many directors. What differences do you see between American films and European or Asian ones?

Actually, there are not so many differences. The people I work with are similar — it’s this very French idea of the director as an auteur, in charge of everything, under a personal creative fever. There are differences between each country, of course, but I don’t ever feel a stranger wherever I work. Cinema is a big continent and it covers so many other continents; it’s the same country and same language everywhere.

Tell me about your experience working in the U.S. and Hollywood.

I never really worked in Hollywood — in fact, I mostly did independent movies. They were much more than how you imagine Hollywood to be. I worked with Hal Hartley and, more recently, with Ira Sachs in Frankie. He is a New York independent filmmaker — still, we didn’t even film in New York. We filmed Frankie in Portugal.

You played a person doomed to die in Ira Sachs’ Frankie; how challenging was that?

It’s interesting because the film is about a woman dying, but during it, you see very little of dying — the main character appears full of life. You, of course, know that she is going to die, and it creates a strange feeling — you are moved more by knowledge than by emotion, more by what you know than what you actually see in the film. And that is the strength of the film, even though she knows she will die, she is eager to choose a beautiful place and make sure her family members will find a partner in life. It’s not just a sweet movie. Normally, those issues are worked out after a person’s death, but she wants to finish them before she dies. In a way, it’s about salvation, but salvation before death, not after. She is completely aware of it; that’s a very interesting way to view death — and this is the original side of the story.

 

Your versatility and talent in metamorphoses are unique. You have an amazing range of work: from film with established directors to independent films. How do you achieve this versatility?

You never know when a film is going to be a success. In that sense, it’s like a game of poker: You are going to win or lose. What interests me is to make interesting movies with interesting people — that’s all what I care about. I am more versatile in the sense that I like to move. For example, I did Mother, a play in New York last season, in English. I like to move and do things where I don’t necessarily know what I will find. In cinema, you never know and you can’t rely on theory alone. I like that you go to a place where you wouldn’t normally go. Of course, if you do a film in Korea or Cambodia, the process is more adventurous.

You had great success in Paris with Robert Wilson’s play Mary Said What She Said. How is your collaboration with Wilson?

Bod Wilson is a genius. This is my third time collaborating with him, after Orlando and Quartett, then came Mary Said What She Said, which I am still touring. He is an amazing artist who invented a unique language of space, rhythm and light — those are the basic devices for his work: rhythm and light. He is unique, and I feel completely at ease when working with him. He is both very abstract and very concrete; once you understand that, you 

Actually, there are not so many differences. The people I work with are similar — it’s this very French idea of the director as an auteur, in charge of everything, under a personal creative fever. There are differences between each country, of course, but I don’t ever feel a stranger wherever I work. Cinema is a big continent and it covers so many other continents; it’s the same country and same language everywhere.

Tell me about your experience working in the U.S. and Hollywood.

I never really worked in Hollywood — in fact, I mostly did independent movies. They were much more than how you imagine Hollywood to be. I worked with Hal Hartley and, more recently, with Ira Sachs in Frankie. He is a New York independent filmmaker — still, we didn’t even film in New York. We filmed Frankie in Portugal.

You played a person doomed to die in Ira Sachs’ Frankie; how challenging was that?

It’s interesting because the film is about a woman dying, but during it, you see very little of dying — the main character appears full of life. You, of course, know that she is going to die, and it creates a strange feeling — you are moved more by knowledge than by emotion, more by what you know than what you actually see in the film. And that is the strength of the film, even though she knows she will die, she is eager to choose a beautiful place and make sure her family members will find a partner in life. It’s not just a sweet movie. Normally, those issues are worked out after a person’s death, but she wants to finish them before she dies. In a way, it’s about salvation, but salvation before death, not after. She is completely aware of it; that’s a very interesting way to view death — and this is the original side of the story.

 

Your versatility and talent in metamorphoses are unique. You have an amazing range of work: from film with established directors to independent films. How do you achieve this versatility?

You never know when a film is going to be a success. In that sense, it’s like a game of poker: You are going to win or lose. What interests me is to make interesting movies with interesting people — that’s all what I care about. I am more versatile in the sense that I like to move. For example, I did Mother, a play in New York last season, in English. I like to move and do things where I don’t necessarily know what I will find. In cinema, you never know and you can’t rely on theory alone. I like that you go to a place where you wouldn’t normally go. Of course, if you do a film in Korea or Cambodia, the process is more adventurous.

You had great success in Paris with Robert Wilson’s play Mary Said What She Said. How is your collaboration with Wilson?

Bod Wilson is a genius. This is my third time collaborating with him, after Orlando and Quartett, then came Mary Said What She Said, which I am still touring. He is an amazing artist who invented a unique language of space, rhythm and light — those are the basic devices for his work: rhythm and light. He is unique, and I feel completely at ease when working with him. He is both very abstract and very concrete; once you understand that, you 

nice to have a relationship with him and plan together the best possible ideas for each event. It’s something I like to share.

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