Laura Cappelle – The Guardian
The French star’s fearless performances – and work ethic – are the stuff of legend. In her dressing room, she talks about the pain of theatre, acting in English and #MeToo
‘There isn’t really any pleasure, just immense fatigue and fear’ … Isabelle Huppert. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
In 2005, days before my 17th birthday, I saw Isabelle Huppert in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Odéon theatre in Paris. It felt like being let in on a secret: I lived in a small town, and Huppert stood for the artistic life I imagined was available only to Parisians. Not only was she the first A-list actor I’d ever seen on stage, but she was the most fearless woman I could remember. In a diary entry at the time, I described her – admiringly – as “witch-like”.
Fifteen years later, back at the Odéon, she is equally imposing, one-on-one. We met on a grey February morning, before the coronavirus crisis shut down the venue and closed the French capital. Huppert was in rehearsal for Ivo van Hove’s new production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie: the run was cut short after a week of performances, and a scheduled transfer to London’s Barbican in June remains in doubt.
The French star was gearing up to play Amanda Wingfield, an ageing southern belle with a quicksilver temperament, who hopes to find a suitor for her frail daughter Laura. On paper, the role is right up her alley: few actors have so consistently sought out difficult, neurotic characters. Unlike many of her peers, Huppert has never seemed interested in being conventionally likable. It is part of her aura, and outside France, it would make her a prime candidate for flying the #MeToo flag within the film industry. Yet the day before Roman Polanski’s triumph at the Césars, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, when I ask her about gender inequality in her profession, Huppert gets up and briskly shows me the door.
Things had started well enough. Sitting in her dressing room, Huppert – often described as a guarded interviewee – is practically animated when discussing Tennessee Williams and her first collaboration with Van Hove, one of the world’s most in-demand stage directors. “Things fall into place without us realising it,” Huppert says of his directing style. “He doesn’t tell me much, but I like it that way.”
Later, when I sit in on a rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie, I see Huppert’s vast experience in action. Even when she snaps her fingers repeatedly to get help with her lines from an assistant, she acts through it, the hesitation hardly registering on her face. Not that gearing up for a stage run is a walk in the park, she says. “At this point, there isn’t really any pleasure, just immense fatigue and fear. Theatre is really like climbing a very painful mountain. Of course, once you reach the summit, the view is beautiful. By comparison, cinema is just a nice, effortless stroll.”
Huppert has made her mark as an eclectic screen presence, as comfortable in period costumes as she is in the French auteur world and in boundary-pushing international projects. If you grew up in France from the 1970s onwards, chances are you feel like you’ve always known her. Some remember her in Bertrand Blier’s Les Valseuses, the 1974 film that made her famous, or as Claude Goretta’s introverted Lacemaker. To me, she was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Claude Chabrol cast her in the role in 1991) and, above all, the repressed, masochistic Erika Kohut in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.
It’s not unusual for her to have up to four or five feature films released in a given year. When she played herself on Call My Agent!, a French comedy series about a fictional talent agency with a roster of real-life stars, the joke was that Huppert was a workaholic who shot one film by day and another by night.
When I ask how true to life that frantic schedule was, Huppert equivocates with a clipped laugh. In 2019, she appeared in films by Eva Ionesco and Anne Fontaine as well as in Ira Sachs’s Frankie, which garnered mixed reviews at Cannes and is due to be released later this year. Huppert plays a terminally ill French actor who takes her extended family on holiday in Portugal, and the film capitalised on her ability to flit between different languages (here, French and English). “You’re always a little different when you’re not acting in your mother tongue,” she says. “You’re kind of a stranger to yourself. It’s sometimes limiting, but it can also give you more freedom.”
Huppert has also acted in Italian and in Russian, and for her next film, Jean-Paul Salomé’s Mama Weed, she spent a few months learning Arabic. In this adaptation of an award-winning French novel by Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, a translator for the justice system becomes involved in a drug deal to provide for her ageing mother and children.
While Mama Weed’s release, initially scheduled for late March, will have to wait, the trailer drew some criticism on social media because Huppert’s character, as part of her Breaking Bad-style transformation, takes to wearing a headscarf and pretends to be of Arab descent. Still, it’s in keeping with the spirit of The Godmother, which highlights the race and class bias in French drug cases: in the book, her character is able to bamboozle police investigators because they don’t speak Arabic and won’t suspect a white woman.
Regardless of the language at hand, you can trust Huppert to do Huppert. “I don’t conform. The way I act is my own, still,” she chuckles. Listening to her, it feels a little as if she is ready to jump into a role at any time. She might as well have been in character as Frankie’s film star when we meet: that day, a photographer was following her for a magazine spread, and on the way to her dressing room, up to the stairs and down a corridor, Huppert had paused our convoy every few metres to make time for a shot, with unapologetic confidence.
Surely, I think naively, Huppert is uniquely well-positioned to talk about women’s experiences in the French film industry without fear of retribution. When I ask what her reaction was to Harvey Weinstein’s recent conviction, she lets out an extended “Ah,” and tenses up.
“Well, listen … It’s the course of events … I think I had the same reaction as everyone else. A reaction obviously of sympathy for the victims, of course.”
I soldier on: “Do you agree to some extent with Adèle Haenel, who told the New York Times that France ‘missed the boat’ on #MeToo?”
And with that, the interview is over. In a matter of seconds, Huppert is on her feet and walks away from me, manifestly irked. “Listen, here, now I have to work.” Dumbfounded, I follow her towards the door. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk, but I’m tired, I need to go work.”
Before leaving, I pause for one factual question. Did she really sign an open letter, published in the French newspaper Libération in February, in support of Yorgos Loukos, a ballet director dismissed for discrimination against a pregnant dancer? Prominent signatories later denied agreeing to its terms. She gives me the kind of withering look usually reserved for her onscreen foes before answering: “Yes, I signed it, there.”
The next night, Roman Polanski was named best director at the César awards. Haenel walked out of the auditorium in outrage, followed by a handful of others. (Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old in the US but fled before sentencing. He was later accused of sexual assault by several women; he denies all of the claims.) The César moment exposed a deep ambivalence in the French arts world about #MeToo, especially among Huppert’s generation. Far from Hollywood’s public displays of unity, in 2018, Catherine Deneuve and others have defended men’s “right to pester”. On prime-time TV after the Césars ceremony, Huppert merely offered a quote she credited to William Faulkner: “Lynching is a form of pornography.”
At the same time, I thought about my teenage self, who saw a different kind of heroine in the French star. To be clear, Huppert owes her, and the predominantly young women who have led the #MeToo push in France, nothing. She has worked with far more female directors than most of her peers, and has said in the past that “men are not afraid of women the way women are afraid of men”.
Yet a moment from the rehearsal of The Glass Menagerie I witnessed stubbornly came to mind. When Amanda learns that Laura’s potential suitor, Jim, is actually engaged to another woman, she bids him farewell with this line: “I wish you luck – and happiness – and success.” If pauses could kill, the glacial chill that Huppert sent through the room after the word “luck” would have been it. Imagine if she channelled all of her boldness and status into speaking out against power abuse. It might be another mountain to climb, but I wouldn’t bet against her.