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Killer Instinct: Why Isabelle Huppert Is Still the Most Dangerous Actress in the World

The legendary star on Michael Haneke, her natural acting style, and why her character in "Greta" is the most evil person she's ever played.

“Greta”

“Acting is very easy for me,” Isabelle Huppert said, not bragging so much as stating a fact. Sitting in a small Manhattan conference room, she leaned back and shrugged her shoulders. The famously understated French star, whose “Greta” opens this month, is as honest and direct as she appears on screen — if also warmer than you might expect from her many film roles (especially on a sunny day off from “The Mother,” the harrowing Florian Zeller play she’ll be performing for the next two months). “Everything I do as an actress is really the story of the scorpion who can’t avoid stinging the frog,” she said. “It’s just my nature, you know?”

That casual admission was alarming to hear. Huppert’s five-decade filmography — a peerless body of work that’s crossed paths with everyone from Otto Preminger and Jean-Luc Godard to Claire Denis and Mia Hansen-Løve — is littered with sociopaths, self-mutilators, and murderers. Huppert only objected to the last type: “What killers have I played before?” she asked. Well, there was the jealous postmaster in “La Cérémonie,” the gun-toting young bride in “Coup de Torchon,” and the prostitute who poisons her family in “Violette Nozière.” The actress scoffed her way to a smile. “Okay, I kill my father. Why not?”

In fairness, that guy may have had it coming. As with the vast majority of violent characters whom Huppert has portrayed, Violette is a complicated woman, grounded in the unknowable gray areas that most stars neglect to explore.

That’s what makes Huppert’s performance in Neil Jordan’s “Greta” such a wonderfully revealing change of pace: For the first time in her career, she plays a straight-up psychopath. And by doing so with the same degree of seductive froideur that she’s brought to the rest of her roles, Huppert clarifies why she’s always been one of the most intense and unnerving actresses in the world. It’s not just because she’s brave enough to take the parts that other stars won’t — it’s also because she refuses to hide behind them.

If and when Isabelle Huppert ever dies, “Greta” probably won’t be mentioned in many of her eulogies. Neil Jordan’s fun new thriller is a campy and delicious crowd-pleaser that builds to a third act for the ages, but it’s hard to compete with the other highlights of an unbeatable filmography that includes the likes of “Heaven’s Gate,” “Loulou,” “White Material,” “Things to Come,” and “Amour.” Nevertheless, there’s something very special about the character of Greta Hideg, a lonely piano teacher (what else?) who lives by herself in an absurdly rustic and sunny apartment in uptown Manhattan (actually a soundstage in Dublin).

The place is straight out of a modern fairy tale, and so is the empty-nester who owns it; just a few minutes after a young waitress named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) shows up with a purse that Greta left on the subway, we learn that the gentle-seeming older woman deliberately “loses” her bags in order to bait sweet girls into filling the hole that her daughter’s absence has left behind. Frances, who’s mourning the death of her mother, is the perfect catch. And so begins a giddy nightmare that unfolds like a fucked-up cross between a bedtime story and “Single White Female.”

That fantastical element is what attracted Huppert to the film. “It’s like the Brothers Grimm,” she said. “In most of the movies, I like to abolish the border between the good and the bad. But here, Greta is definitely a bad person. She’s just a killer, you know what I mean? She’s probably the most evil person I’ve ever played.”

That’s easy enough to believe. Huppert seldom plays good or evil. Greta is different. “I wouldn’t put her in the same field as my characters from ‘The Piano Teacher’ or ‘Elle,’ though I can understand how people can draw a line between them,” she said. “Those other characters are not as guilty. They lead you on a journey through the female psyche with desire and love — they’re softened by sexuality. But you don’t even try to understand Greta. There’s nothing to make her legitimate. She’s a real monster.” As for her motivation: “Maybe you can think that she has a fatal attraction towards this young woman, but it’s all left to the audience’s imagination.”

When it comes to Huppert, that’s usually the case. The actress is notorious for her illegibility — her almost Bressonian lack of expression, and the profound unrest she’s able to convey from behind the stillness of her freckled resting face. Pauline Kael once complained that “when [Huppert] has an orgasm, it barely ruffles her blank surface.” If Kael had lived to see “Abuse of Weakness,” “Elle,” or “I Heart Huckabees,” perhaps she would have come to appreciate how the stillness of Huppert’s unbeatable poker face allows her to normalize even the strangest and most perverse of characters; to make it seem as though any of their behaviors, no matter how unusual or demented, are as natural to them as we are to ourselves.

“Greta”

TIFF

Where so many actors think of themselves as unavoidable obstacles — as something they need to work around or erase in order to perform their parts — Huppert is happy to serve as a conduit. Watching Huppert play herself in Anne Fontaine’s “Reinventing Marvin,” you’d swear that she’s been doing that all her life. “With respect for my collaborators, I create my own territory with the material,” she said. “It’s always a cross between something completely invented, and something that comes from you. That’s the definition of acting, for me.” But it’s not the goal. When asked if avid fans should feel like they can see the real her between her 100-plus credits, Huppert reframed the question. “You don’t make movies to be known,” she said. “To be well-known maybe, but not really known. On the other hand, I can say that each movie is almost like a self-portrait that reflects who you are.”

“Greta” makes it more obvious than ever that Huppert is cinema’s greatest one-way mirror. While there are a handful of satisfying jolts in the film, she doesn’t need them to rattle you. She’s scary in the way that the open ocean is scary, or a dense forest at night is scary: You know you’re confronting some kind of elemental truth, but the majesty of it all only adds to the feeling that something is watching you from the darkness.

Greta is just trying to let some love into her life, but — much like Erika in “The Piano Teacher” or Ella in “Heaven’s Gate” — this gentle-seeming Parisian immigrant is only willing to do so on her terms, and without getting hurt. It’s always a tug-of-war between control and surrender, but where Huppert’s characters often strain towards a stalemate, Greta seesaws from one extreme to the other. One moment she’s being a maniac, the next she’s acting the victim, and watching her swing back and forth with such reckless abandon (sometimes in the same scene) allows us to appreciate why those terms have never applied to her work.

“The debate about women playing victims on screen is now completely irrelevant for me,” she said. “It’s not about playing the victim or not playing the victim — it’s about how. I always try to play the contrary to what you’re supposed to. It’s nothing that I think consciously, it’s just the way I am.” That explains “Elle,” and also why so many of her characters are fueled by some kind of internal combustion. “Greta” is a once-in-a-lifetime look under the hood.

The film’s best moment echoes some of the signature grace notes from Huppert’s career, and makes them all ring a little bit clearer: After Greta kills someone, the 65-year-old woman suddenly twirls in a circle like a joyful little girl. The essence of the character is distilled into a single movement. “It just happened,” Huppert said of her little dance, allowing for just the slightest hint of satisfaction. “We never worked on that. We never anticipated that moment. I don’t know why I did it, but Neil just said ‘Oh, that’s lovely. Do it again!’ And so I did it again. I would say these things superficially happen at random, but nothing really happens at random in a film. If the film has a good spirit and a good foundation, it creates a space for these things to happen.”

Huppert understands the flavor of every film she makes. “When you do a movie, you really do three movies,” she said. “The director does a movie, the script does a movie, and the actor does a movie; the final product is a reunion of these imaginary processes.” Part of Huppert’s genius is that she can see each of those movies before anyone else, and act in a way that will serve them all. “But a bad director would leave that stuff on the side,” she said. “I’m quite lucky I’ve never really worked with one.”

Luck has nothing to do with it. Huppert — a passionate cinephile who owns two cinemas in France, and flares her nostrils when talking about how “Roma” wasn’t properly screened in Paris — has an unparalleled eye for talent. And while that’s easy to argue when the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, and Alain Robbe-Grillet are lining up to work with you right out of the gate, it’s incredible to see how many of her less-proven directors have gone on to become major artists. “It’s true!” Huppert said. “I can’t believe it.” She cited Joachim Lafosse, Hu Wei, and Ursula Meier as recent examples. “They’re all really talented people, you know what I’m saying?”

Isabelle Huppert in Things To Come

“Things to Come”

It’s strange to hear someone as indomitable as Huppert end so many sentences with a little room for doubt, but that’s an affect of her flawless but heavily accented English, which she leverages in “Greta” in order to underline the performative nature of her role. “If I speak English to you, I’m not exactly the same person who I am in French, that’s for sure,” she said. “Speaking in English gives me a certain fragility. It makes me less. It’s a slightly diminished version of myself. I might be wrong, but that’s how I feel. You know what I mean?”

Huppert’s marginal self-doubt has never held her back. She’s acted in English many times on stage and screen, and gives it little thought. “I just love doing good movies,” she said.  “And I only did movies that I really loved in English.” She has a long history of working in America, and recent events haven’t done anything to diminish that: “There’s a lot of people I don’t like in America, especially one, but I still like America, of course!”

She goes where there’s great work to be done. When Hong Sang-soo calls, she’ll answer (“I love Korean movies!”). When Matthew Weiner asked her to play a tyrannical director in the spectacular third episode of “The Romanoffs,” Huppert didn’t hesitate. “I loved it!” she said. “I like being a vampire. Matthew is so crazy and I like him very much.” She went out of her way to refute a claim she’d read that her performance was based on Michael Haneke. “He’s the easiest person to work with,” she said. “He’s also very funny. Like all great writers, he brings a certain irony to even the most tragic material. By nature, I’m the same — there’s nothing worse than a lack of humor.”

“The Piano Teacher”

Huppert is drawn to people who see things that way. Woody Allen is a longtime favorite, and Huppert admitted — with just a touch of trepidation — that she’d still be willing to work with him. (“Yes. Yeah. I would.”) She cited Terrence Malick as one of the few auteurs who can get by without the irony she craves, and would listen to anything he might have to say. And she called “Green Book” a “very good movie,” because nobody’s perfect.

Most exciting of all is the thought that another Claire Denis collaboration could be on the horizon (“We’ve been in talks for quite a few years now, and I think that it could happen again”). The only reason Huppert has yet to see Denis’ “High Life” is because she was busy shooting Ira Sachs’ “Frankie” in the Portuguese resort town of Sintra. The American writer-director (“Love Is Strange,” “Keep the Lights On”) is another natural fit. “I love his movies,” Huppert beamed, promising that the Cannes-tipped drama is very different from anything she’s done before. “It’s a family reunion story about this woman who is going through something very painful, and everybody around her is forced to react to that.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Huppert also spent last year shooting “Luz” with the Chinese filmmaker Flora Lau, in which she’ll face off against her computer-generated avatar. “I have no idea what it’s going to look like!” she said. Asked if she was excited to see her screen image represented like that — if it might teach her something new about herself — Huppert wiped away the air with her hand. “I don’t need to learn something,” she said. “I just enjoy doing it. It’s always strange when I hear all these things like ‘you’ve done so many movies!,’ like you must be untouchable, and I don’t think that’s how it works. It’s more about a lack of confidence and not being sure of what you do.”

The only thing Huppert knows for certain is that she’s not going to stop anytime soon. When Mia Hansen-Løve was asked what she thought motivates Huppert, the filmmaker responded that “Isabelle has this addiction. It’s essentially the relationship she has with acting — to throw herself into it completely, to get lost in roles in order to better feel herself alive.” Huppert brushed off that quote when she heard it read back to her. “No, I just like doing it,” she said. “It’s very easy for me. It’s not like I have to climb a big mountain every day.”

And playing someone like Greta Hideg doesn’t take its toll? Huppert laughed. “You never really identify with your characters,” she said. “You identify up to a certain point, but not all the way. And even less so for Greta. I mean, everybody has fantasies of killing someone, but living in society is a compromise.” Her face went blank for a moment, until she remembered that someone was trying to read it. “I haven’t killed anyone so far!” she said, and grinned. It was very easy for her.

Focus Features will release “Greta” in theaters on March 1.

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