Isabelle Huppert is having a very big year.
In between the release of festival favorites like this week’s “Valley of Love” and next month’s “Louder Than Bombs” from Joachim Trier, a very positive response to the Berlin premiere “Things to Come,” the upcoming thriller “Elle” and a hefty number of projects in the works, Huppert’s career is more active than ever.
And in her newest theatrical release, Guillaume Nicloux’s “Valley of Love,” Huppert even plays herself…kind of.
Huppert stars alongside Gerard Depardieu as a pair of grieving parents who are forced to spend a week together in the alien landscape of Death Valley, as demanded by their deceased son. That’s plenty of emotionally heavy lifting already, but Nicloux’s film layers in some added spice, as both Huppert and Depardieu’s characters are also famous French actors who are often recognized while they’re trying to mourn their son and unravel the mystery of why he wanted them to go to Death Valley (and what he wanted them to find there).
It’s sad and funny and strange, but it also allows Huppert to play around with her own persona in a very unexpected way. For the Cesar-winning actress, it’s just another role to dig into.
IndieWire recently sat down with Huppert to talk about her very different roles in this year’s offerings, the wonderful weirdness of filming in Death Valley and the one thing a director needs to captivate her.
How did Guillaume approach you for this project? It seems like a different sort of thing to ask someone to play themselves in a feature film.
I had met Guillaume before because we did “The Nun” together. As we were either doing or finishing “The Nun,” he offered me to do this film. Initially, Gerard was not going to be in it. He wanted someone else. He wanted an American actor at the beginning, because it takes place in the States. He had this idea of two people from two different nationalities. Then it didn’t happen and he had this idea of casting Gerard Depardieu, which was a good idea, so we decided to do it.
The script was very good. The dialogues were attractive. The situation was so unusual, and that’s what strikes people when they see the film.
It’s a very strange story, taking place in a very strange place, with a great amount of spirituality and mysticism. I liked [Death Valley] very much as soon as I arrived. I had been there before, I knew what it looked like. I had been there on vacation with my children, so I expected the place to create a chemical reaction.
It’s a very alien environment.
It’s nice little weekend country. I’ve been there before with my children. For me, this place was immortalized before, through “Zabriskie Point,” the film by Antonioni. So I knew more or less what it looked like already. It’s something to look at on screen, but it’s something else to experience it.
What was your experience filming there?
Three weeks as opposed to three days, I was there for three days the first time. Three weeks, some people live there and they stay months. It’s really amazing. It had to be done there. It’s very, very special. I don’t know how to describe it.
Guillaume reminded me last night that at some point the temperature went up to 62 degrees celsius. It never cools down. It stayed the same all night. So you never get a feeling of relief, never. All the water, the shower, the swimming pool, there is no possibility to get away from it. At the end you bear it. You hold on to it. You think it’s going to be impossible.
It’s very strange. But beautiful and very inspiring. It’s like being on a different planet. There must be other places like this in the world, but I don’t know where. It’s very special.
The film takes place throughout the valley, and you stop over at many different locations.
You get the sea salt. It’s just a great variety of landscapes. Each day, because we had to make a stop [we went to a new place]. It’s also something I think, when Jesus has to stop every day, each station. There is something in the Catholic religion, you have to make a stop.
Yeah. It was exciting. We knew every day was going to be different. It wasn’t like we were going to be in the same place. It was never boring, plus the way Guillaume Nicloux shoots is very pleasant. He doesn’t make a lot of takes and the staging is very simple. He needed that simplicity. What’s very nice is the simplicity of the conversations. There is something sweet and soft between the two of us and sometimes the nature can be threatening. Imagine the same story in a different landscape.
The story lends itself to this otherworldly environment.
The situation is very, very deep and painful, because we are waiting for something completely unlikely, the return of our son. But meanwhile we are having very simple and daytime conversations about the past and the present. I knew it was going to create something very human and very sensitive and also quite mysterious. What it means to have been a mother and a father, what it means to be a couple that used to love each other and doesn’t love each other again, the strength of the love beyond the end of that love, which takes flesh in the child.
The script unfolds slowly and plays with expectations quite a bit. It feels straightforward at first, and then it morphs into something that asks more from both its characters and its audience. Did you find that to be challenging?
What is interesting [about the story is that] philosophically, I believe and he doubts, and at the end he believes and I doubt. It’s almost because of transmission of two different ethical attitudes towards life. Probably she always believed as I think a mother can believe. It is completely likely she believes, because of her pain. But he is skeptical.
At the end he’s the one who sees, and she doesn’t see and it drives her crazy and it’s almost like she transmits her own belief in him. Even myself, when I think about it and when I think about the film, I still don’t know.
Of course, she suffers from not seeing what he saw at the end, but at the very end they are united again into a common belief and peace. They created something again together, no matter what. It doesn’t go without complaints and jealousies, but in the end you remain on this image of peace.
Let’s say death is, no matter what, unbearable and there is nothing you can imagine to lighten the weight of what it is. So in a way, they succeeded. They lightened the weight of that.
You’ve also got “Louder Than Bombs” finally hitting theatrical release soon. It’s a nice counter-point to “Valley of Love,” as both films deal with issues of connectivity within families.
That was exciting, because we did it in English. The theme carries this situation of several people not speaking the same [language]. I was French, Joachim [Trier] is Norwegian, the other actors were American. The movie is not quite American, you can feel it. We speak English.
It’s always interesting when you have certain people from certain countries filming in different countries. It creates a special chemistry. Guillaume saw this landscape in a different way than American directors would, so it’s always interesting to have a vision from a foreigner of a country, and Joachim certainly didn’t lose his individuality as a filmmaker because he comes from Norway.
That’s another very complicated script.
I thought the script was brilliant. He’s a very brilliant filmmaker. We all loved “Oslo, August 31st” when it was first released in Paris. The movie was very successful. We all felt it was the discovery of a great newcomer. The film’s so powerful because in a very simple – not simple because I feel the movie is very sophisticated in a complex way – but there is something very powerful in the staging, in the way the scenes come one after the other, the way he mingles the dreams and the reality.
It’s like he was piling several layers of consciousness of the human being. What you live in the present, what you remember, the relationship between your inner world and the outer world. It’s very brilliant. It’s what all our lives are made of. This assemblage of several awareness. What we think, what we are.
In the end something, that was not necessarily so clear in the script, but something that happens to be so clear when you see the film, [is] this difficulty to compromise between your life when you have a passion or when you work, between your social life and your inner life as a private person. That’s what the movie really speaks about. The bond that she cannot do between her life as a photographer and her life as a normal person.
The film is very much about finding balance.
That’s really one of the main subjects, in an almost philosophical way. How can you unify all these different persons in yourself and be centered? I think it’s something he describes very clearly around my character precisely. That difficulty that she can’t put everything together. Also, after she dies she’s a different person for everyone. That’s true.
Only when someone dies do you realize how much this person was different according to each different person. I think it’s very strange.
You recently debuted Mia Hansen-Love’s film in Berlin, which you also star in and also features a complex character.
The movie is just great. It’s very powerful. The main character is wonderful. Again, the direction is really brilliant and the character is never to be reduced to what she is being said to be which is an intellectual, a philosophy teacher. You can never put people in categories. It doesn’t mean anything to say she’s an intellectual, she’s a non-intellectual. Yeah, she’s an intellectual, that’s her profession. She’s a philosophy teacher, she’s smart. She likes to transmit her knowledge, that’s her life.
But on the other hand, because she’s a philosophy teacher, she likes life. She believes in life. She believes in the beauty of life. I remember when I was reading “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir when I was a teenager, and it really carried me in a way. She was a teacher in France and the way she describes her appetite for nature, beauty and sensuality. There is a little bit of that in a simple way. It shouldn’t be taken as, “Oh my God, it’s a movie about an intellectual.”
You’ve worked with so many different kinds of directors in your career, especially lately. Do you think there is a common thread between them?
The thread is their talent. Before Mia, I did Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which is really something, too. I think it’s the amazing talent. Verhoeven is such a great director, so powerful, very different.
I don’t think there was a common thread because they are all very different. The common thread would be to be unpredictable. The least you can require from a director is to be personal and leave a personal piece on what they do.
“Valley of Love” is playing in limited release.