French cinema siren Isabelle Huppert, arguably one of the world’s greatest working actresses, is also one of the busiest, having appeared in over 90 film and television productions. Since landing her first film role in 1971 in Jean L’Hotes TV movie “Le Prussien,” France’s most famous red head has gone on to serve as the muse for Jean-Luc Godard, Benoit Jacquot, Michael Haneke and most notably the late Claude Chabrol, with whom she collaborated countless times in such classics as “La Cérémonie,” “Madame Bovary,” and “Violette Nozière” which netted Huppert her first Cannes Best Actress award. Later in her career she won that same award for her searing turn in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” and remains one out of only four women to have accomplished that feat.
While Huppert has worked with the majority of France’s biggest directors, her latest film, “White Material,” marks her first collaboration with Claire Denis, the celebrated auteur of such films as “Chocolat,” “Beau Travail,” and “35 Shots of Rum.” In “White Material,” set in an unnamed African country on the brink of an all out civil war, Huppert plays Maria, a French farmer who struggles to keep her coffee plantation afloat amidst the escalating violence. When her workers flee the plantation in fear of the rebel soldiers, many of them children, Maria takes matters into her own hands and suffers the consequences.
Huppert – diminutive in appearance, commanding in presence – sat down with indieWIRE in New York to chat about the project and to discuss her illustrious career.
Though “White Material” was made after you approached Denis with Doris Lessing’s novel “The Grass is Singing,” which is set during the late 1940’s, the film doesn’t seem to have much in common with the book.
Actually nothing was kept from the book. I first asked Claire if she would consider doing “The Grass is Singing,” because I loved the book. She kept only the idea of this white woman in Africa trying to cope with this eternal and universal antagonism between black and white. But in the book the character is much more of a victim, more like a Madame Bovary. And so she kept the idea of a woman in Africa. But she made up a whole different scrip. She really placed the character from a victim to a much more active woman who really fights very hard until the end for that she wants. And therefore the character looks more like she was from a novel by Nobel Prize winner John Maxwell Coetzee.
This marks your first time working with Denis, but you two have known each other for nearly 30 years, correct?
Let’s keep the figures out. I’ve known her for some time yes. I think we always wanted to work together. We just never found a mutual and good opportunity. It was meant to happen, and it happened a bit late, but it happened, and hopefully it will happen again.
Denis was quoted in an interview with The Guardian saying you’re an actress who is curious to find something about yourself in your roles, and that you’re not afraid of doing so. What, if anything, did you discover about yourself in playing Maria?
I didn’t find anything about myself. Maybe what I discovered was my physical capacity to face certain situations. But I mean it was no great surprise for me. I didn’t know I was going to be able to ride a motorcycle, like I do in the film, and things of the like. I’m saying that because the character is clearly and mostly defined by her physical capacities and abilities. She’s not psychological. This physical endurance is important to define the character. She’s someone who goes to the end; that’s what it is about. She doesn’t want to give up. There are no – like in some other characters in some other films – strategies, psychological complexities. It’s just she has to save that crop crop of coffee. That’s all it is about. But then it becomes a metaphysical quest almost, because it’s a quest for staying where she is. It’s a quest for staying in this territory where she belongs. And it casts a different light on what colonialism is. Because it has nothing to do with property, or with having; it has to do with being. This is why the movie is so strong and powerful. It really has a lot to say in terms of people’s attachment to the land. But not in terms of property. You want to keep it because it defines what you are.
You’re frequently labelled as a fearless actress. Has any role scared or intimidated you before showing up on set?
A role would intimidate me if it was bad. That would be the only reason why I would be intimidated by a role or scared, or uneasy. When roles are good, with great directors, in great films, there is no reason to be worried, or to be suspicious. That’s how I see things.
You’ve been known to refer to acting as an intrinsically private matter. With that in mind, what do you make of the promotion process that comes after completing a film?
Well I do it because it’s nice to speak about movies, and it’s a public media. The more people get to see a movie, the better it is. And of course, you have to draw people’s attention to any event. Even more so now.
Sometimes I don’t feel really at ease with the kind of clichés of the actress that I’m being fed back with. When you go through promotion, yes you are more imprisoned into a so-called image of what you are. Not most of the time. But that’s that.
When your films hit theaters do you ever feel nervous or apprehensive about what you’re putting out there in the world?
I’m curious about what people are going to think. When you make movies it’s obviously because you want to connect with people. Of course I’m interested but up to a certain point. I’m not going to throw myself out of a window if a movie if badly received. Even when a movie is not well received, it’s always interesting to hear the reasons why. It’s a pubic proposal, and it’s more than normal that it’s going to create controversies, or some kind of disagreement. It creates a dialogue, and that’s a dynamic of course.
In Marc Fitoussi’ “Copacabana,” which premiered at the Critic’s Week during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, you act opposite your daughter Lolita Chammah. What was it like playing mother to her on screen?
Well at the beginning it was a bit weird. When we first started, during the first hours, we thought ‘Oh my god! Is that serious?’ It was unrealistic. It was surrealistic. I don’t know how to describe it. As a consequence we were just laughing. We couldn’t take it seriously. But then after a small time of course it became serious. And it was fun actually, and became easy. Part of the relationship was by definition accepted, because we are mother and daughter. Now I would be interested in playing with her in a non mother daughter relationship. That would be nice and challenging.
Can you reveal anything about your speculated involvement in Ulrike Ottinger’s “The Blood Countess” opposite Tilda Swinton who is slated to portray Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory?
At this point I’m not quite a hundred percent sure it’s going to get made. Hopefully it will be. It would be wonderful being reunited; Tilda and I. It’s the same subject matter that Julie Deply did in “The Countess.” It’s more abstract approach of the same subject. Ottinger is a sort of a underground Berlinaise director, very strange. So we’ll see.
You’re remained remarkably busy both on screen and on stage since first embarking on your career. Do you ever see yourself retiring?
Well why not, maybe. I think when you do things with such passion, with such need, it goes without saying that you always deal with this fantasy of stopping everything and maybe experiencing. You like to live with this idea that you might have a totally different life, invisible. I don’t know…maybe.