The Nun (La Religieuse) was considered too controversial to be published in the lifetime of its author, the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. The story is told as a memoir from the perspective of a young nun, the illegitimate Suzanne, who has been forced into convent life by her mother. At three convents she causes a ruckus by voicing her desire to be released from vows.
Director Jacques Rivette adapted the novel in 1966, with Anna Karina starring. In a new version set to be unveiled at the Berlin Film Festival this month, Isabelle Huppert, 59, takes on the small but important role of the mother superior who tries to take sexual advantage of her young charge. It's a hot-blooded, passionate role from a woman who more usually comes across on-screen as madam sang-froid.
“Knowing the book and the controversy it caused, I was naturally interested in the film,” she tells me in a Paris hotel. “I even believe there was a controversy when Rivette's film, which I haven't seen, was released. Of course, now the story resonates in a different way; even the controversy over the homosexuality of my character doesn't seem the same as it did at the time – but still, because of the environment, because it takes place in a convent with religious people, there is still a fragrance of transgression.”
Transgression is a word that has popped up throughout Huppert's career, most notably in her work with Michael Haneke. She won the best actress prize at Cannes for her turn in The Piano Teacher and appeared in Time of the Wolf. When the most-nominated actress in the history of the French César Awards was asked to be the president of the jury at the 2010 Cannes film festival, and it was revealed that Haneke's film The White Ribbon was up for the Palme d'Or, it may have seemed almost inevitable that he would win the top prize. He did win – and then she took on the role of the daughter in his next film, the Oscar-nominated drama on growing old Amour.
I ask her if she felt in any way awkward about giving Haneke his first Cannes best film gong, given their working relationship: “No, really no, I'm not lying when I say that,” she responds. “Because it was so obvious, it was unanimous; maybe one person was in disagreement.”
There's a sureness in her tone that lets you know that there is no point taking this line further. Indeed confidence is something that oozes from Huppert. The Parisian mother of three, knows her own exalted status in the film world and is entirely comfortable with it.
With Amour being nominated for several Academy Awards, she's looking forward to Oscar night. “I think the voters are smart,” she asserts. “It's much more of a surprise that Amour got nominated than The Artist, because The Artist was more of an entertainment film. I think it's so funny, too, that an 8-year-old [Beast of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis] and Amour's Emmanuelle Riva, who is 84, have both been nominated as Best Actress.”
It's hard to believe that Huppert is in the latter half of her sixth decade. She has a young gait and when we meet is wearing a red sweater, blue jeans and grey snow boots. There is a warmth and friendliness to her – yet I can't let go of the nagging feeling that she could explode at the drop of a hat. When she doesn't want to talk about something she lets you know firmly. When questioned on sometime co-star Gérard Depardieu taking up Russian citizenship, she gives a half-smile as she says, “No comment!” When pressed, her lips straighten. “The annoying part of it,” she says, “is that you find yourself being asked to comment. It's not my problem, so I don't have to comment.”
She has consistently stated that the director is the most important element when it comes to choosing roles. “The life of an actress is made up by the encounters that she has with directors,” she posits. “The worst situation on set is that there is a terrible director who is the most stupid guy in the world; but I have to say, that's rarely happened to me.” Again, she doesn't name names, but a leaked video of David O Russell exploding on the set of I Heart Huckabees shows the actress looking utterly bemused.
She's as busy and popular with directors as ever. She's made some truly eclectic choices in the past couple of years, working with the mercurial Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (Captive), South Korea's Sang-soo Hong (In Another Country) and Italy's Marco Bellocchio (Dormant Beauty). Her forthcoming projects include a small role in the New York-set thriller Dead Man Down opposite Colin Farrell, a role in the intriguing looking diptych The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – the story of a relationship told in two movies, one from a male and the other a female perspective – and she's just completed filming Abus de faiblesse by Catherine Breillat.
The Breillat film is an autobiographical tale from the French director about how she was duped by a con man following a brain aneurysm. Not even playing a director, though, has made Huppert consider moving behind the camera. “It's too much work and I'm very busy being an actress. I think becoming a director makes you take power in a different way than when you are an actress. I'm not sure I'm willing to be in that part of the circus.”
She's increasingly been working in English, so perhaps it's unsurprising that this summer she's going to put her language skills to the test by appearing on stage in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Maids, opposite Cate Blanchett. Australia should be in for a treat, with a stage show starring two of today's best screen actresses.
The project came about because, “over the years, Cate and I started to build a friendship. She invited me to perform in the theatre and then finally we decided to do something together.”
Huppert's only previous appearance speaking English on stage came at the National Theatre in 1996, when she starred in Adrian Schiller's play Mary Stuart. At the time, critics picked at her French accent, which seems a bit harsh given that it is really very soft: “Theatre is more of a challenge for me than doing movies, especially theatre in English. It's a bit more difficult. So it's a big leap into the unknown, but I'm confident.”
That self-assurance is no surprise, but she's far from the scary sang-froid figure she's often painted as being.
'The Nun' premieres at the Berlin Film Festival, 7 to 16 February
This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine