Frequently namechecked by critics, fellow actors and directors as one of the greatest screen actors alive, French actress Isabelle Huppert is the subject of the first of a series of impressive tributes to be made at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival. She is also being honoured here by an eclectic, 11-movie sampling of her back catalogue, including 1980 Gerard Depardieu-starrer “Loulou”; Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” for which she won the second of her two Best Actress awards in Cannes; and her more recent work with Brillante Mendoza and Hong Sang-soo, “Captive” (reviewed here) and “In Another Country” (reviewed here).
And when we spoke with the actress yesterday, she was happy that the selection was well-curated. “When you choose, you have to lose something, by necessity,” she said, in reference to her immense list of credits, “but it’s a good choice.” But on the subject of retrospectives generally, she is more ambivalent “I don’t look back, I try to look forward… I never watch my own movies.” However it’s not for the usual squeamish reason of not liking to look at oneself onscreen — “No, I like to see myself onscreen! I really enjoyed the [montage of retrospective] images that I saw.” Instead it seems, as in her work, Huppert is concerned with an authenticity of experience that, as as a participant as opposed to a pure spectator, she cannot attain in watching her own films. “I understand [films] belong to people’s memories, as they do for my own memory – I mean, movies that I see with other people in them — but when you [act in them] it’s very specific. It’s a different job being an actress than being a spectator.”
Inevitably, given her recent string of films, the conversation moves to the internationalism of her profile, and the reasons for that. “By choice or by taste I traveled a lot from the very beginning. In a way… there’s this idea that movies are the 'country' of cinema and the cinema belongs to every country. And I always liked the idea of going everywhere, and when it was possible, visiting the little places in this ‘country’ of cinema.”
“In the past two years I went even further to explore this dimension, [going to the] Phillippines and Korea, and not like an exotic experience, because the funny thing about it is you go to the Phillippines and Korea and such remote countries from where I live, and you find yourself in such a familiar environment, because it’s the country of cinema," she continued. "So it’s going far but staying near, staying where I am. The further you go and yet you stay at home.”
Despite this nomadic urge, Huppert has a number of upcoming Hollywood films, which seems like a marked shift as, of all national cinemas, that of the U.S. is relatively underrepresented in Huppert’s career. We ask her if it was a conscious decision to start making more American films. “It’s always a conscious decision,” she replies “maybe not as a strategy but conscious as a desire, yes. Sometimes it could be less conscious, because the two last things I did in the States were really participations [as opposed to leads].” But when asked if she has historically been cautious in her relationship with Hollywood she laughs back, “No, no. They have been cautious of me.”
Of course, one of the most famous of her Hollywood forays was with the once-notorious but now rehabilitated Michael Cimino epic “Heaven’s Gate” (see our feature here) which Huppert refers to more as the kind of “great opportunity” that an actress responds to than as part of a deliberate plan to heighten her profile. “You don’t make such plans when you are an actress. You take things as they happen — it’s impossible to make plans because you don’t control the whole situation. But you do respond to certain opportunities… I didn’t have any idea of doing an American career versus a French career. I don’t think anybody has such an idea, well, certainly not I.”
Among her American friends and admirers is James Gray, on this year’s jury here in Marrakech, who presented her tribute on Friday night. Sadly, they have no plans to work together as yet. “Not for the moment. I’ve known James for quite a few years, and then we shared that experience as jury members in Cannes… And French people love his movies, Chabrol was a great fan of his work, with reciprocity of course, but from when we saw ‘Little Odessa,’ his first movie, French people always responded very strongly to his work.”
And speaking of U.S. collaborations that aren’t going to happen, it seems David Gordon Green’s “Suspiria” remake, as we suspected, is currently shelved. “No, it’s the type of thing that has been announced regularly on the internet, but it’s not going to happen. I mean, we never know, but it’s not, for the moment.” We are manfully resisting the urge to type a sad face smiley right now, because Huppert as the head of a coven of modern-day witches, especially amongst the great supporting cast that was lined up, just feels weirdly necessary right now.
But what is happening, and is in fact already in the can from the prolific actress, is “Dead Man Down,” starring Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell, from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, the man behind the Swedish ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ It’s about “a girl — Noomi Rapace — who goes through a very painful experience. She has been attacked by a man and her face is destroyed and she wants to take revenge,” says Huppert, so it would appear Oplev and Rapace are not straying too far from the themes of their first collaboration.
The more intriguing sounding Huppert project is the ambitious double feature “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His,” which stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in a tale of marital strife told from two perspectives, across two separate films. In these, Huppert plays Chastain’s mother, in what appears to be something of a sublimated desire for Chastain, if our interview with her this time last year is anything to go by: she was greatly looking forward to/nervous about meeting Huppert, and breathless in her admiration. But as we reported from Berlin, they hit it off, and now have already got a collaboration in the can. Indeed, unusually for Huppert who always maintains that her approach to new projects is primarily driven by the director, here the desire to work with Chastain appears to have been a key factor. “I like Jessica and she likes me. It was just like a little hors d’oeuvres [of a role], but I liked the script and the young director and the [dual perspective] concept.”
But for the meatier roles of her career, including her most recent in Hong Sang-Soo’s “In Another Country,” her priorities are clear: “First director, then after that comes the character and after that the screenplay. And sometimes not even the character, not even the screenplay. Hong Sang-soo is known for not writing scripts in advance – and he’s not only known for it, he actually does it, he doesn’t write scripts. I knew I was going to do three characters, I knew the first one was going to be a documentarist and second one was going to be this woman meeting her hidden lover in this little town and the third one was going to be this abandoned housewife, but that’s about all. It’s quite a lot actually, just to make your imagination travel, just to know that.”
So that aspect of Hong’s approach she confirms, but she debunks another. The rumour was that his MO involved getting really drunk with his cast members and then working the stories that emerged into his screenplays. Alas, “…that’s a legend. Like when they said with Chabrol that he liked good food and good restaurants, which was true, but he didn’t choose his place of shooting based on the restaurants.”
In fact she has nothing but admiration for the originality and odd discipline of Hong’s methods. “People really like his movies in France, he is quite recognised as a great filmmaker and a great author… And he likes to make things happen very quickly. He has his own agenda, his own way of making things happen, like it was by chance, but in fact it was not at all by chance. The whole thing was very controlled. For example his first source of inspiration is not actors or story, it’s most of the time a place. So he had already chosen a place when I met him, and he said ‘you want to come to my place?’ I like this, he has his own way of doing things. And once you are there, even though we shot in a very short amount of time, he is quick but not that quick, because he makes a lot of takes, it’s never improvised. Even though he would [only] give you the scenes in the morning, it is very, very precise, so the whole thing is quite fascinating.”
And from her most recent collaboration, to one of her most defining; it’s difficult to talk directors with Huppert without a certain Michael Haneke cropping up. However their three collaborations would have been four, had the director had his way. “I said no to Haneke for ‘Funny Games.’ But for Haneke it is not a problem for him if he wants to work with someone — he doesn’t have a problem with someone who has said no to him… But ‘Funny Games’ was special. It was more like an experience. He wanted to put in light the process of exploitation of violence on screen, and for that the actors were reduced to… there were no characters. They were put in such a real situation, there was no place for imagination, and imagination is the main fuel for an actor. Even though both actors — both are unfortunately dead now — there were such great actors, Suzanne [Lothar] and her husband [Ulrich Muhe]. But they did it, they were brave enough to do it and they were fantastic. I was scared to do it. But German actors are much more fierce than any actors in the world, they would do anything. On stage they are certainly the best actors.”
We are reminded by her “no character” comment about something similar she said to us in Berlin about her role in Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive.” Does she regard that experience as similar to what was asked for in “Funny Games”? “Yes in a way, but what I went through [in ‘Captive] was less painful than what the no-characters in 'Funny Games' had to go through. The death of a child is the most unbearable thing to face when you are a parent and I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. It doesn’t happen often. Maybe I would do it now…” And it was on some level a hard decision at the time, because of who was asking “…what was quite fearful for me was not-to-work with Haneke.” As to his approach, it seems trust begets trust, up to a point. “He’s very easy to work with. He just puts his camera and lets you do things. I think he likes the people he chooses. When he has chosen somebody he likes him completely, or her, and he lets her do whatever she wants to do. And then sometimes [he wants] the most accurate note or tune and until he gets that specific thing he can be very stubborn.”
Huppert is happy with her level of celebrity. “I’m not that famous!” she says, and indeed she has managed to maintain her privacy amid all the acclaim. We ask her, however, if she is aware of how her being attached to a project, especially with a director like Brillante Mendoza or Hong Sang-Soo as their first “name” star, automatically heightens their profile and whether this informs her choice of who to work with. She demurs immediately, and amusingly: “Nonono, I have no altruism. They are respected and great directors, they are being selected in Cannes. They are not international like a great American director, but they are already great directors, so there is in no way an idea of ‘helping’ them. [My involvement is] very very selfish. I’m very selfish.”