Isabelle Huppert on Embracing the Darkness in Breillat’s ‘Abuse of Weakness,’ Now on Netflix

Isabelle Huppert on Embracing the Darkness in Breillat's 'Abuse of Weakness,' Now on Netflix
Isabelle Huppert on Embracing the Darkness Breillat's 'Abuse of Weakness,' Now on Netflix

Isabelle Huppert is something of an enigma. The Cannes and Cesar-winning actress plays women whose strength resides in some depraved inner core. And that perversity threatens to drive her characters deep into the void, as in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” or into the light as in her new film with Catherine Breillat, “Abuse of Weakness.”

Huppert is Maud, a stand-in for Breillat who, in 2007, suffered a serious brain hemorrhage that left her physically paralyzed — but not creatively bankrupt. Breillat did, however, nearly go bankrupt in the literal sense when, while developing a project during recovery, she pursued an infamous con-man for a lead role. Breillat willingly threw herself into a kind of S&M relationship with this man — complete with strappy leather boots! — cutting checks for the hood’s dubious investments, and ultimately bankrolling his criminal lifestyle while he nursed her broken body.

“I’ve sunk like the Titanic,” says Maud, half-paralyzed and strapped to a hospital bed. “But when I return, I’ll be an atomic bomb.” It’s with this steely will to live that Huppert plays the Breillat surrogate. While watching Maud get duped again and again by this charming loser (played by Kool Shen) is almost as painful as, say, watching a piano teacher mutilate herself in a bathtub, Huppert makes Maud’s (and Breillat’s) downward spiral sympathetic. In this folie-a-deux, he fulfills some unknowable need in her. It’s about manipulation and control, as all acting and directing is.

Back in August, at the delirious early hour of 7AM, I spoke to Huppert on the phone from her hotel in New York, where she’s currently doing French playwright maudit Jean Genet’s “The Maids” on Broadway. Her appearance alongside Cate Blanchett in this marvelously arch, bruising and histrionic classic is something of a fever dream for fans of high-pitch, women-on-the-brink performances. (Original interview below.)

“Abuse of Weakness” played theaters in summer 2014 via Strand Releasing and is now streaming on Netflix Instant.

Ryan Lattanzio: You’re in New
York doing “The Maids” with Cate Blanchett. Which of the sisters do you play?

Isabelle Huppert: I play Solange. 

That’s one of my favorite plays. And she reminds me of other women you’ve played.

Obviously. Yes, and of course, there was “La Ceremonie” by Chabrol. Although it was based on
the Ruth Rendell book, the book itself was largely, widely inspired by the Papin
sisters’ story and, then, “The Maids.”

What’s it like to
return to that material again?

It’s very interesting. It’s sort of fun. It’s nice to do a piece like this in several places. Once you do it the second time,
even the third time, the fact that you change venues, you change places, it
rejuvenates you. You find lots of things you had not found in the first place.
And, all of a sudden the meaning of certain lines makes more sense than at the
beginning. It’s not at all like you repeat yourself. On the contrary, you feel
like you invent new things. 

You’ve never worked with Catherine Breillat before. It seems like such an obvious collaboration. What drew you to the role of Maud and working with
Breillat, at last?

Well, I thought it was the right moment, with the right
script, with the right situation, the right role. Yes, we have been wanting to
work together for years. She came to me with a couple of pieces and, for
various reasons, it didn’t happen before. This time, when she first talked to
me just about the idea of doing a film out of that story — actually, I think her book had been published already — she asked me to do it and, yes, I wanted to do
it. I had no doubt about that.

You often play women driven by unexplainable perversity. I’m thinking, of course, of “The Piano Teacher,” “Merci Pour Le Chocolat,” “White
Material” and so many others. What was different and challenging about “Abuse of Weakness”?

Well, in this case of course, the biggest challenge, if
you can call it that, is that the primary definition of the role is her disabled physicality. She has the leftovers of a stroke. She had a
stroke, therefore she limps and, at the beginning, she speaks as paralyzed and
is paralyzed. And, the part is largely defined by this
physical particularity, and then by her abuse, which is her weakness. Because,
the movie is called “Abuse of Weakness,” and that is precisely what the whole
story is about.

Because of that weakness, the way she meets that man, at the
same time he is going to support her but also take advantage of her. Of course,
the game would be only one-dimensional if it were just for that. But, because
she is a director, when she meets him, she wants him as an actor. And, as
a director, you can do whatever you want with an actor. You can manipulate him,
you have power over him. Right away, this kind of relationship arises between
them: she as a director, he as an actor, and all that that implies between an
actor and a director. And, plus, she is a woman and he is a man. So, it is a
very complex relationship that grows with this objective fact that she is weak
and he is strong. So, that’s what it is about. 

Was Catherine
resistant at all to hand over this vulnerable, dark side of herself to you?

She has this extraordinary ability to create a
distance with her problem, if I can call it that, with what happened to her. Previously
she had written the book, and then the movie, and the movie is an
object of fiction. And, so she was able to create and use me, not as a double,
because I was a fiction character. There was no sentimentalism. There was no
embarrassment. I was just literally imitating her way of walking, her way of
talking at the beginning, because I had seen Catherine just after the stroke
happened. So, I was able to reproduce her body language and there was no
embarrassment whatsoever. We were doing a movie. As she quite rightly puts it:
“I didn’t do a movie about myself. I did a movie by myself.” You know, it’s a
movie by Catherine Breillat. So, it means she signed it as a creative person,
as an artist, as a director. But, it’s not a documentary about Catherine. So,
it really encouraged us to create that distance and to be as free as possible
with this material, as it was pure fiction.

You capture the after-effects of a stroke very well. I was
reminded of Emmanuelle in “Amour,” in which your co-star had to portray a similar kind
of paralysis.

Yes, but I am a much more alive character in this.

What attracts you to complex characters?

What draws me into a character is mainly, at first, the encounter with the director. For me, the essential part of the process
is this meeting with the director, this relationship with the director. And
then comes the script, and then comes the character. But, mainly with the
character, it’s hard to tell what draws me in. I don’t know; when I read a
script, something resonates with me. I see myself in the role, or I don’t see
myself in the role. It’s almost like something is growing inside of me. And, if I
don’t have a vision of myself in the role, I can’t go for it. I can’t take it.
But, if I do, then I take it. And, of course yes, as you said, I do mostly
complex characters. But, I don’t think these characters are purely defined by
their complexity. Maybe I put that depth and that complexity in the character,
also. I think you can put complexity in any character, actually. And, it’s
interesting when you play a very complex character to try to go behind the
surface and legitimize this perversity or these very sharpened angles to the
character, to make the character both clearer and more difficult to understand. The more you dig into a character, the more you literally extend him
between these two extremes: clarity and darkness. And, I think it’s a general
statement you can make about mankind, most of the time. Most of the time,
behavior is clear but so complex. So complex. And this is what I am
interested in most in a character. 

You seem to use your face, quite a lot, to convey complexity. 

Well, the face is an ensemble of a lot of things. You
have the eyes, first of all. That’s the most important, because you can say so
many things with the eyes. You can say lines, but reveal something
different with your eyes. And, you can also say so many things without the
lines, being just silent or muted. The eyes make it all. It’s a lot about

What’s your take on Breillat’s body of work? Overall, it’s very controversial in
the United States. I don’t know about in France, though.

Yes, well, I know that it is even more so in the States.
And, yes, of course in France, too. She likes to be provocative, to go quite
far. But, I think she also likes to celebrate the beauty of things. Everything
is very stylized in Catherine Breillat’s films. That’s why, at some point,
it’s like as if you watch a painting. She refers many times to painting
precisely, and I think that says it all. If you watch something of a nude, you
don’t think of the provocation, if there is a provocation. You think of the
nudity, but you also think of the beauty, of the frame, of the light. And, I
think all of Catherine Breillat’s work is like this. It’s not what she shows;
it’s how she shows. And, that’s always the mark of a great director. It’s not
what you say. A movie is not about what you say; it’s about how you say it.
And, it makes the whole difference.

As it does for
acting, exactly as you said.

In a way, sure. Style makes the whole difference. You can
say the same thing very vulgar, very down-to-earth; or, on the contrary,
make people think differently because the way you do it makes it all.

The idea of seeing you with Cate Blanchett onstage in “The Maids” is like a fantasy I never knew I had. Have you enjoyed working with Cate Blanchett?

Well, it has been truly wonderful. It is very, very rich
work. We are both stage actresses, but we have differences and similarities.
And the work was mainly about putting together these differences. You know we
come from different cultures, different countries, and different languages. So,
it was really fascinating to use all of those differences and also the
similarities, being both stage actresses very much engaged in our theater lives. We like to work on certain texts, and I think, at some times, we both
have the same kind of approach. Very rich, very rewarding work, to work

And, how long are
you in New York for?

I’m going to be in New York a certain time, because right
after I finish the play I am going to begin work with a Norwegian director
named Joachim Trier who did a wonderful film called “Oslo, August 31.”

I love that
film. I look forward to that. It sounds like another wonderful partnership.

I will also be doing a film with a French director, being
shot in the Death Valley, by Guillaume Nicloux. So, I will be here a while.

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