Few actresses are quite as fearless as Isabelle Huppert. She’s been a near-legend for going on forty years, but has never taken a paycheck job, preferring to seek out challenging work with some of international cinema’s most uncompromising auteurs. And that’s embodied neatly in “Captive,” her collaboration with Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
Huppert plays a woman kidnapped by the Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf, and it’s a typically vanity-free performance from the great French actress. We managed to get to talk to Huppert in Berlin, both as part of an interview with other press and, for a few minutes, one-on-one; you can find our discussion below. “Captive” doesn’t yet have a U.S. distributor, but it should land on these shores sometime before the end of 2012.
This character seems to be very different from some of your other characters, like the ones you’ve played for Michael Haneke, for instance.
Well there is nothing I can compare in this movie with other characters I’ve done before because for me there was no character in this movie. There was no character for the mere reason that the movie is about being a hostage, and I think being a hostage is mainly in the fact that you are not anything anymore. You are mainly defined by being a hostage. Of course at the beginning, everybody presents themselves to the guy, on the boat, she’s says I’m a social worker, and the man says I’m a banker, and a man says I’m running a newspaper, but very quickly you forget about that because that’s not what defines you as a human being. What defines you is just being a hostage.
So, for me there was no character. That’s the strength of the movie and that was also the bet of the film for everybody, just to be hostages and to be defined by the reactions that you have to the fear, the unnatural conditions, the evil that happens, but certainly not by what you are or what you were previously, because by definition you are not anything anymore. You are forced into… being anonymous, or this loss of intimacy, by this promiscuity. That’s the life of the hostage, I believe. I’ve never been a hostage myself, but I think that’s exactly what Mendoza wants to explore, that condition.
How well did you know Mendoza’s work, beforehand?
Well I’ve seen some of his previous films and I think he can make very different movies. For instance if you take “Lola,” it’s very different from “Kinatay.” I believe he’s very free with what he does. He’s very free as a director, in his own relation to his craft, to the movies. I was mainly struck by “Kinatay.” There, you have three very different times in the movie. The beginning, the wedding and everything, then the time when you literally descend into the dark side of the human being, and then the third part when you go up to the surface again. And those three times were so different with no links, I really admired how he dealt with these different times with a total freedom. It was his choice and it was his right to do a certain sense of time in the first part, another sense of time in the second part and a different sense of time in the third part. I like this, almost like a child would find for the first time the language of movies.
Do you think he achieved a similar affect with time in “Captive”?
Well I think that what you achieve is certainly the sense in how the time passes. We showed the movie chronologically and that was really important — that was really certainly the main thing in how to render this impression of time passing, and changing the relationships between people. We were literally thrown on that boat the first day of the shooting, not knowing each other, not knowing who was who. And gradually getting to know each other, getting to understand what it was about. Most of the terrorists were actors. In the group of hostages there were actors, there were non-actors. So at the beginning, we had no identities ourselves, but also the terrorists had no specific personalities themselves. They were all hidden. Almost like the violence was abolishing all differences, the same way of being violent. Gradually of course, some of them were more identified as persons and as human beings.
Did the whole experience give you more insight into the motives of terrorists?
No. I wouldn’t say that. We all know that at some point you can tie certain kinds of links with these people, because it’s so long, so by necessity finally you create links with people that you never expected to create links with. At the time I was doing the movie I read the book by Ingrid Betancourt, who was a hostage for seven years, and even if the situations were totally different, I could tell that in the core of being a hostage, even if it was in different countries, different political context and everything, there was something very similar. The reading of the book really, I felt like I was sharing, what everyone was sharing in the movie, it was exactly what she was describing. All of a sudden you create a relationship with somebody who’s supposed to be your enemy. Also the sense of nature, that nature is your enemy and the next day can also be your friend. Because it’s a sense of beauty, it’s a sense of hope.
You also made a film with Rithy Panh, and now Hong-Sang Soo, do you feel any clashes of cultures or any differences when you are doing films in a totally different context?
Well with Rithy Panh, it was different because it was based on the book “The Sea Wall,” so what’s interesting about it is to have the look of somebody from there, upon the situation that was described by Marguerite Duras, so it was the look from the writer, and from the director who was from this part of the world, but it was a French production with people from Cambodia, so nothing what I went through, is what I experienced with Mendoza. It was closer to what I experienced with Hong Sang-Soo more recently, I was the only foreigner in a different country. The movie’s called “In Another Country.” It’s exactly the subject of the movie, being in a place which is foreign for you.
What’s going to be the memory that you’ll treasure from this shooting?
The moment I treasure most is there was a group of Philippine dancers and they sing a song which is very well known, it’s called “The Spaghetti Song,” and in the evening I would love to sing that song and to dance. I even learned how to dance that song, that is the moment I treasure most. I love that song!
At this point, we were able to snatch a few minutes alone with Huppert.
It’s my understanding that you met Mendoza, you wanted to work together and then came the idea for this film?
I think he had the film [already] in mind actually. It all went together, but he knew he was going to do the movie.
Were you at all worried, you’re obviously the highest profile actress that he would have worked with, that somehow bringing your status to this project would change some of the things that you loved about his directorial style?
No, he’s a very strong person, he’s a very strong director, and I think intuitively and instinctively he knew that my presence in the movie wasn’t going to alter anything. Not him as a director, or the process of the movie. No I don’t think we had any of this fear about my presence in the movie. Everything was very easy actually. Very, very easy.
I was in Marrakech recently for the film festival, and I met Jessica Chastain, and she said that she was going to come meet you and she was so nervous.
We did meet a number of times and she’s wonderful. She’s a wonderful actress and a wonderful person.
She was actually a huge fan of yours, she said “I want Isabelle Huppert’s career.” How comfortable are you with being a role model to a new generation of actresses?
It can be a burden you have to bear, because you don’t feel that entitled to represent those kind of things for people, but I’m never sure enough of myself to really accept that. But it happens so it’s nice. Maybe it’s nice for everybody to understand that there is a certain authenticity in being an actress and this is recognizable by the one that has the wish to be authentic.
Did you see that in somebody else?
I saw that in her [Chastain], that’s for sure.