Back in September Isabelle Huppert attended her first US premiere in a decade – joining co-stars Jude Law, Naomi Watts and Dustin Hoffman for the I ♥ Huckabees launch at The Grove in LA. That’s her, looking quite diminutive, in a line up with Mark Wahlberg to her left and director David O Russell to her right. ‘She’s practically a legend in France,’ enthused Russell to the TV cameras about the French actress, little seen in Hollywood since Heavens Gate. ‘She has the most impeccable style and taste but she’s also willing to have her face slammed in the mud’. Looking at her career – six Chabrol films, a Godard, loads of high-end theatrical work and the passionate extremes of recent psychodramas like Ma Mere and La Pianiste – Russell’s summation of this exquisite French grande dame seems fair enough.
In Huckabees Huppert does indeed get her face slammed in the mud in a sexually-charged scene with Jason Schwartzman – she plays the wicked witch of the movie, the philosopher who has gone over to the dark side and whispers sweet nihilisms into the ears of all who will listen. She’s the nemesis of Dustin Hoffman and on-screen wife Lily Tomlin who extend their brand of Buddhist metaphysics and French philosophy to help those having a life crisis – including goofy environmentalist Schwartzman and dazed fireman Wahlberg. It’s an unclassifiable film billed as an ‘existentialist comedy’. In a deleted scene – inexplicably deleted as it happens – Huppert reveals herself to be the victim of an unsuccessful ménage-a-trois with Hoffman and Tomlin. No wonder her character’s dictum is ‘cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness’.
Russell only signed up Huppert three weeks before filming started, which seems rather remiss of him; if you want a fearlessly intellectual actress, you phone Isabelle Huppert in Paris. No other actress of her generation has managed to push the envelope in the way she has – and because of her experience in classical theatre – those long tours with plays like Euripides Medea – there’s an extraordinary poise and dignity to what she does, even if it is being gang raped in Heavens Gate, drugging and poisoning in Merci pour le Chocolate, indulging in genital self-mutilation and sniffing soiled porn cinema tissues in La Pianiste, or inducting her pliant teenaged son into incest and S & M in Ma Mère
Its surprising to find how tiny she is in the flesh when I met her in London, at the Dorchester. It’s a cliché I know. But she’s the size of a little old woman. In Ma Mère, directed by Christopher Honoré from a Georges Bataille fiction and due for release in the UK next Mothering Sunday, she fairly towers above the camera in some shots like a terrifyingly meaty vixen-haired dominatrix. On the other hand in the flesh she’s exactly as cool and cerebral as you’d expect, until she hears her sons Angelo and Lorenzo running around in the hotel corridors near by (her daughter Lolita – I’ll refrain from commenting on that Nabokovian name – is now 20 years old). La Huppert glances over at where the sounds are coming from, like a dedicated mother cat hearing mews from her kittens, aware that feline order is being disrupted.
Yes, she is amazingly small. Perhaps its just because she’s slumped in her autumnal-coloured clothes, and is whippet-thin, like Parisian women always are, however much steak and pommes dauphinoise they eat. Its hard to reconcile her almost transparent delicacy with the physical presence familiar from the movies, though one hears this with actors like Pacino – to meet them is to meet an empty vessel.
She was a timid as a child. Born in 1955, Huppert was the youngest of five children in a prosperous middle-class environment in suburban Paris. After an education which involved studying Russian she took drama courses at the National Conservatoire D’Arte Dramatique (where she learnt ‘nothing’) and began her acting career in the city’s café-theatres. A number of modest TV roles established her and she finally began to get noticed after appearing in Claude Sautet’s Cesar and Rosalie in 1972, playing Romy Schneider’s younger sister. Bertrand Blier’s La Valseuses in 1974 launched her as an international star - alongside Gerard Depardieu. Claude Chabrol found in her the perfect modern, post-feminist inversion of the Hitchcock heroine – no passive cipher, but a powerful, inscrutable and sometimes dangerous creature. In La Ceremonie she played a psychopathic post mistress. In Madame Bovary she was expertly repressed, expertly sub-carnal. ‘Isabelle Huppert shows us her tongue on only two occasions,’ trilled author Julian Barnes of the movie, who clearly notices such things.
And now La Huppert is back in the thick of the Hollywood A list, taking on a role variously earmarked for Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow, depending on which account of its wildly eccentric pre-production you read. Russell did his best, it seems, not to write a comprehensible script, and all the major studios passed on the project until a private UK backer was found (prompting Fox Searchlight to come back on board). Russell nearly lost Jude Law after Christopher Nolan enticed him to a rival project; it’s now the stuff of Hollywood legend that Russell, meeting Nolan at an LA party, put him into a crushing headlock and shouted about directorial solidarity. During the shoot Russell did everything to liven up and confuse his cast – taking his clothes off, and touching and rubbing the actors playfully, at least according to Sharon Waxman of the New York Times. At one point on set Wahlberg grabbed the megaphone and announced of the director ‘this man just grabbed my genitals – it’s my first man on man contact!’. They can’t have been surprised – Russell is also celebrated for fisticuffs with George Clooney on Three Kings, a film that also starred Wahlberg. Waxman also claims Russell whispered ‘lewd’ things into his actresses ears before the takes. ‘He’s fascinating, completely brilliant, intelligent and very annoying sometimes too,’ Huppert confirmed to Waxman on the phone.
I didn’t ask her, but I suspect Russell would have thought twice about being lewd to Huppert – who would either fell him with a basilisk stare or say something back, five times dirtier. ‘I had a good time,’ she tells me. ‘But I was with my family in my own space too. It’s nice to be part of something and have your own space’. I was curious to know what she made of Russell’s debut film Spanking the Monkey, an incest film, to do with mother and son. ‘It shares a similar subject matter to Ma Mere, which is a bit edgy, shall we say…’ She gives a dry chuckle.
Is she consciously aware of taking on controversial roles? ‘I’d rather not take bad roles in bad films,’ he observes coolly. ‘But I don’t take any risk in these films – there’s no risk in more artistically adventurous projects. That’s part of being an actress – trying to get into these different universes.’ Does anyone confuse you with your roles? Do they get frightened meeting you? ‘Maybe they do but I’m not aware of that – if you start being aware of that, then you are in bad shape, you know, and some actors get like that, talking about themselves in the third person. Sometimes I can tell when people are not natural with me and I have to admit that maybe I would be the same.’ Do you draw on your own experiences or are these roles an act of imagination? ‘I think it is both – being an actress is a quest for authenticity and a quest for truth.’ Your roles often deal with extreme mental states – do you have an interest in mental illness on a technical level? ‘I think everyone carries it within themselves. I always feel on the verge of falling into something I don’t want to fall in to, and being an actress helps me to go on. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have this possibility of course’. Do you think you might have gone mad, if it wasn’t for your acting? I don’t think I’m mad – being aware of what I covey and carry around means I am not mad. Had I not become an actor I would have been very unhappy, I do know that. It’s like a protection for me. People ask me about preparing these roles, and isn’t it scary, and I reply it’s the opposite. The more difficult it is the more reassuring it is’.
I week later we talked again on the phone. She was taking a break from rehearsing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, which opens in January. She was partly in character as she talked to me from the green room (‘what a curse,’ Hedda cries at the end of the play, ‘it is that makes everything I do ludicrous and mean’). I wanted to cast her mind back to Heavens Gate, which despite all the reports to the contrary, was a good experience for her, and she has retained a friendship of sorts with Michael Cimino (‘though I’ve never thought of a director as a friend, I don’t know why’). She says he’s working in a directors cut, to be released shortly, and may be making another film with the director The Human Condition. Was it nightmarish to make, as legend has it? ‘No it was extraordinary – the nightmare was the failure, you know. I still believe the movie is a masterpiece. But it was very anti wild-west and America just didn’t want to hear bad things about their country.’
Plus ca change, I should have said.