Isabelle Huppert: Mysterious? Moi?

Schopenhauer? What do you need to know? Baudrillard? An old sparring partner. Oh yes, she's smart and she has the most enigmatic face in French cinema. 'I'm more like a question mark than a statement,' claims actress Isabelle Huppert. But it's answers that Jonathan Romney wants, and he won't stop till he gets them...
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Isabelle Huppert's recent French box-office hit Les Soeurs fâchées ends with an extreme close-up of the actress's face, filling the screen. Her character, a well-heeled Parisian with a personality coiled spring-tight to contain her disappointment in life, has just felt her world cave in and had an explosive set-to with her philandering husband. As she contemplates her uncertain future, Huppert's features flicker through a succession of implied emotions - implied, but not easily pinned down. Les Soeurs fâchées is a brisk, acidic comedy of manners, and most films in the genre would strive to leave no ambiguity about the character's state of soul. The power of this scene, however, lies in the way that the corners of Huppert's mouth tighten a fraction, the lashes flicker tentatively, and it's left to us to decide whether or not to give a name to what we're seeing. Not many film stars - let alone one in her early fifties - would submit to a close-up so pitilessly revealing of the b

Isabelle Huppert's recent French box-office hit Les Soeurs fâchées ends with an extreme close-up of the actress's face, filling the screen. Her character, a well-heeled Parisian with a personality coiled spring-tight to contain her disappointment in life, has just felt her world cave in and had an explosive set-to with her philandering husband. As she contemplates her uncertain future, Huppert's features flicker through a succession of implied emotions - implied, but not easily pinned down. Les Soeurs fâchées is a brisk, acidic comedy of manners, and most films in the genre would strive to leave no ambiguity about the character's state of soul. The power of this scene, however, lies in the way that the corners of Huppert's mouth tighten a fraction, the lashes flicker tentatively, and it's left to us to decide whether or not to give a name to what we're seeing. Not many film stars - let alone one in her early fifties - would submit to a close-up so pitilessly revealing of the bare contours of the face. But Huppert's face is her incomparable working tool. While she teasingly holds us back from getting under a character's skin, we find ourselves contemplating the actress's own skin, in all its figurative and literal opacity. This famously freckled surface - sometimes so pale that cinematographers like to light it an unearthly blue - is European cinema's most precise membrane for measuring and registering emotions.

Since the early Seventies, Huppert's screen career has led her from volatile, rebellious gamines next door to an assortment of mercurial mothers, high-society tigresses, thinking femmes fatales. Her face was once reassuringly round and apple-like; over the years it has become elegantly etched with fine critical lines and a drawn beauty that can look tender or desolate. Cheekbones unsuspected in her youth have surfaced, all the better to express wry contempt, lofty disapproval, callous sexuality. Often, Huppert can convey all this even while her features appear to register only a bored attentiveness. Her physiognomy is a challenge to the perceptions, obliging us to read her characters a little more closely than we would with more flamboyant actors. She once said "I'm more like a question mark than a statement". Because she often plays acutely intelligent characters, Huppert is often described as intellectual; she has preferred to call herself instinctive or, at a pinch, cerebral. She has also been accused of having a chilly personality, usually by interviewers falling foul of her impatience with standard showbiz lines of questioning. Indeed, I have seen her politely freeze out journalists at a press conference in Cannes, her disappointed impatience that of a primary school teacher towards a class of toddlers still struggling with their ABC when she'd rather move on to Dostoevsky.

But today, when I meet her in Paris, Huppert is relaxed, friendly, professionally detached. Huddled in a black polo neck and incongruously fluffy pink jumper, she sits alert in a way that suggests she's open to any interesting ideas that might arise - and should the session turn into a colloquium on the nature of the screen image, or a seminar on Ibsen, you imagine she'd be perfectly content.

The film she's ostensibly promoting is a unashamedly non-commercial one. Ma Mère, released here next week, is based on Georges Bataille's posthumous novel about a young man initiated by his mother into a world of transgressive sexuality. Christophe Honoré's adaptation is austere yet oddly chic, transposing Bataille's morbid nexus of sex, death and transcendence to a luminous Canaries setting (one surprising result being that the Huppert pallor is replaced by a hedonist's glowing tan).

What Huppert liked about Bataille's book, she says, is "the sensuality which comes through in the words and the situations - a very strange atmosphere of corruption, voracity, physicality". As sexually perverse as her character Hélène is, Huppert's cool knowingness as she slinks through various sexual scenarios makes her seem more like an amused field observer. Huppert sees the film as "a simple but complex love story about the fusion between mother and son, which can only end in death. I think that's what Bataille's writing revolves around - this fundamental taboo. You carry a child inside you, and when the child is separated from you, that's it, it's over, and that's something that can't be transgressed against. But Bataille hovers around that transgression, that lost paradise. So my imagination as a woman, and as a mother, hovered around that too."

Even so, Huppert - whose persona as much as any French actress's embodies the thinking woman as libertine - sounds almost a shockable bonne bourgeoise as she recalls the film's shoot on Gran Canaria. "The place was unbelievable - in-croyable," she says emphatically. "From a French tourist's point of view, it was like a total hallucination. There are these malls which are like tourist precincts, but they're also venues for sex tourism. By day, you get families walking around, then at night they're replaced by this extraordinary fauna, and shops that sell..." Words fails her. "It's open to everyone. You even see children walking around. It's absolutely... Very curious."

Huppert relishes the challenge of taking herself, and her viewers, to deeply uncomfortable places. On stage she has acted in 4.48 Psychosis by the late Sarah Kane: Huppert is fascinated with Kane's violent, confrontational writing, which she sees as embodying "absolute transgression. She takes everything that binds us to social compromise, and blows it to smithereens". Perhaps her most commandingly extreme screen role was the lead in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), a part involving voyeurism, genital mutilation and sado-masochism; even sniffing a discarded Kleenex in a porn-peepshow booth, Huppert displays the same laconic stateliness that she might bring to, say, Medea, a part she has played on stage at Avignon.

In The Piano Teacher - which won Huppert a Best Actress award in Cannes, her second - she is a classical musician tormented by sexual conflict and a domineering mother, and to watch her is about as agonising, and as serious, an experience as modern European cinema has to offer. "There's a very, very strong emotional transgression in The Piano Teacher and in Ma Mère," Huppert says, "but not such a visual one. Both films appeal to the imagination, they don't involve my body in any exceptional way. But it's in the subject matter, the incandescence of the emotions involved, that the risk lies. In fact, I wouldn't really call it a risk... But certainly those characters disturb people."

Even when they don't disturb, her characters can be downright antipathetic: by her own admission, she has little interest in charming us. But given the range of Huppert's work, it can be too easy just to identify her with the nocturnal side of the psyche. That, surely, is the equation made recently by American director David O Russell in his conceptual farce I Heart Huckabees, when he cast Huppert as Caterine [sic] Vauban, "France's dark lady of philosophy," a trenchcoated penseuse whose calling card reads, "Cruelty. Manipulation. Meaninglessness".

Huppert played along gamely, muddy sex and all, although you wondered whether she was really enjoying herself, especially given the director's well-documented reputation for being bullishly confrontational on set. Was Russell really as full-on as reports say? "Yes, even more than they say. Still," Huppert laughs, "there you are, it's all in the past. The script was fairly incomprehensible, but you could see that something personal was trying to express itself." I couldn't quite tell what school of French philosophy Caterine was supposed to belong to, I say. "Me neither. Maybe it would have been better if it had been clear. But she's on the side of the sceptics. She's like Schopenhauer versus..." Versus New Age self-help manuals? "That's it. She's more or less a nihilist. So she had to be a European actress."

Huppert's sporadic American career continues to bemuse, largely because US directors seem to cast her for her Frenchness as much as for any other qualities. "True. I'm hardly likely to be convincing as a 'girl from Texas'," she says, slipping from French into English. Her big American break, though it failed to make her a Hollywood name, was Michael Cimino's 1980 Western Heaven's Gate - gargantuan catastrophe or misunderstood masterpiece, depending where you stand - in which Huppert was submerged among multitudes of horses, riders and rollerskaters. The fliming turned out to be open-ended, and she ended up spending seven months in the backwoods. "It was a very strange shoot. Everyone was away from home, deep in Montana, in this incredible self-contained world, all revolving around Michael Cimino and his extremely strong personality."

Other American roles have included a rare piece of outright pulp: the stalker thriller The Bedroom Window (1987), which cast her as disposable Euro-candy. The more artily ambitious Amateur (1994) resulted from an admiring letter that Huppert wrote to director Hal Hartley, who responded by creating the role of an ex-nun turned porn writer. But Huppert's oddly stunned delivery only underlines the archness of lines that wink at her image: "I'm coldly intellectual. Too pale. Altogether too ethereal. And my feet hurt from these stupid shoes." Easily Huppert's most successful English-language film is an Australian drama, Paul Cox's underrated Cactus (1986), in which she is a woman losing her sight; the sensitivity and alertness of Huppert's features as a recording apparatus have rarely been more apparent.

Huppert was born in Paris in 1953; her father was a manufacturer of safes, her mother an English teacher. Her sisters Caroline and Elizabeth became directors; she has worked with them both. Growing up nearby in Ville d'Avray, she got a scholarship at 14 to the Conservatoire National to study drama, then studied Russian at university. Her first screen role was in 1971; three years later, she made her mark with a small part in Bertrand Blier's macho farce Les Valseuses, as a petulant teenager deflowered by a thuggish Gérard Depardieu. She worked with Depardieu again in Maurice Pialat's low-glamour Loulou (1980), as a middle-class girl falling for a leather-jacketed marginal: she's flighty, spontaneous and compellingly prosaic.

Ordinariness was the young Huppert's forte, but with a disconcerting edge. Her breakthrough role was in 1977, in Claude Goretta's La Dentellière (The Lacemaker). Huppert played Béatrice, aka Pomme, a gently undemonstrative girl who works in a hair salon. She falls for a student who rejects her, then has a breakdown that both the film and Huppert portray with eerie understatement. Everything in Pomme prevents us from latching onto any inner self: the sweet-natured acquiescence, the vulnerable features under a helmet hairdo, the final inscrutable gaze to camera. Broken, numbed, defiant? We can't be sure.

Her longest-running screen collaboration - six films to date - has been with the confusingly versatile nouvelle vague veteran Claude Chabrol. In his Violette Nozière (1978), Huppert was a dark counterpart to Pomme, a teenage murderer in the 1930s. In La Cérémonie, she was frighteningly insouciant as a cheerfully malicious postmistress who turns out a stone-cold psychopath. Madame Bovary (1991) was leadenly studious, but in any case redundant since Huppert and Chabrol had already created a memorable Emma Bovary figure in Une Affaire de Femmes (1988), a restless housewife in Occupied France who becomes an abortionist to feather her nest. The film is a prime example of Huppert's willingness to eschew glamour - her Marie goes from drab to glam and back, soured by moral collapse - and of her ability to make us care about unsympathetic characters. She and Chabrol, Huppert once remarked, intended Marie to be "perfectly pathetic, perfectly repellent and perfectly moving".

To develop roles, Huppert doesn't require in-depth discussion with directors. "I like to know where I'm going at the start. I like them to talk to me, then I build the character in my head, picking up on things that come up in conversation." Some film-makers, obviously, do things a little differently. Jean-Luc Godard, with whom she worked in the early 1980s, doesn't use scripts. "On Passion, he gave me bits of information, pictures. He got me to read Simone Weil, and he asked me to limp and stammer. I was playing a worker - perhaps he wanted to show that the working class had trouble making itself understood. It was a bit much. I got an speech therapist to explain stammering to me."

Normally, Huppert does not go to great lengths to research a part - although she practised piano for a year to give her Schubert recital in The Piano Teacher. Otherwise, she draws on experience. "Say I'm playing a cashier - I've seen cashiers in my life, I've been to the supermarket. Anyway, a film isn't like a documentary." According to Olivier Assayas, who directed her in the costume drama Les Destinées sentimentales (2000), Huppert simply doesn't need to research. "It's not like a long process where she needs to know this or that about a character. She doesn't really care much about the psychology - she understands it intuitively in very profound ways. Building a career like Isabelle's involves a very subtle understanding of all things human."

One thing that Huppert is acutely, perhaps scientifically conscious of - and what makes her different from many film stars is that she admits it - is the way she looks on screen. "In a close-up," she says, "a flicker of the eyelids is a major event." She knows her lighting, will check herself in mirrors, likes to work closely with directors of photography. "It's not a narcissistic preoccupation," she insists. "Lighting has to tell you a lot about a face, so I like DoPs to see how they can work from my face. Anyway, I know I have a face - otherwise I wouldn't be a film actress."

For the same reason, Huppert enjoys being photographed, especially by the calibre of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and, most recently, Nan Goldin. "What makes a photo a great photo - that's something of a mystery, isn't it? I enjoy being at the heart of that question."

Despite this pleasure in display, Huppert is famously reluctant to expose her off-duty existence. She has three children, Lolita, Lorenzo and Angelo; their father is Ronald Chammah, who directed her in a 1987 thriller, Milan noir. Did they meet on set? "Yes," she nods, "but that's absolutely part of my private life." Lolita, in her early 20s, herself has several film roles under her belt. I mention that I've just seen her in Claire Denis's new film L'Intrus, playing a mountain-dwelling wild girl, and Huppert perks up. "You've seen Claire's film? You're lucky, I haven't seen it yet. Apparently it's extraordinary. So you've seen my daughter." Yes, I say, and she looks remarkably like you. "Ouais," Huppert smiles, with a proud intake of breath.

Huppert also has a flourishing stage career, working with hardcore experimenters like Peter Zadek and Robert Wilson. She even risked a London production of Schiller's Mary Stuart at the National Theatre, to mixed responses: Huppert admits she wasn't entirely comfortable with her English. Currently, she's doing a two-month sold-out run of Hedda Gabler at Paris's Odéon, in a warehouse space on the northern edge of town. It's an elusive deconstructed Ibsen, played on a vast stage resembling a Japanese lacquered platform. With the cavernous venue making it difficult to see Huppert's facial expressions, her Hedda is not easily fathomed. Her playing is by turns declamatory, abrasive and mannered, with Huppert striking odd static poses, freezing like a totem pole. The point, perhaps, is to give us Hedda not as a person but as a series of versions of a person: about another play, Huppert once commented that she enjoyed "being in relation with a multiplicity of states of myself, rather than playing a character". In theatre, she tells me, she works from a sort of wilful disregard for the text: "I like to privilege feelings rather than a preoccupation with the spoken word."

Working on stage, Huppert says, "I never get nervous, bizarrely. I used to, a lot, but not any more. But some days I do wonder where I'm going to get the energy from." Overall, the energy doesn't seem to be flagging: alongside the theatre, Huppert made four features last year, six in 2000. And very few of her films are duds: stringent quality control means she has avoided both the disposably populist (Depardieu's ruin) and the prestigiously middle-brow. What attracts her to a project is above all the right director. "If I believe very strongly in a story, but the director doesn't do it for me, I can't make the film." Hence a catalogue of collaborations with auteur names like Benoît Jacquot, the Taviani Brothers, her friend Diane Kurys, and François Ozon (whose camp musical 8 Femmes highlighted Huppert in a rare out-and-out comic role, clearly having a ball as a buttoned-up cartoon spinster in butterfly specs).

Whatever she may claim about not being intellectual, in 1994 Huppert guest-edited the French cinephile bible Cahiers du Cinéma, and conducted some heavyweight dialogues with the likes of Robert Wilson, philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the exceptionally intractable novelist Nathalie Sarraute. The issue is richly revealing of Huppert's own theories on her profession, even if it sometimes seems she's playing up to her interlocutor: she tells Baudrillard, "I am aware of watching myself being watched. And I get the impression that it's because I have the faculty of watching the person watching me that I can create that otherness, that place of resistance where I can be absent to myself."

Put more simply, perhaps, Huppert is aware of her own mystery: of challenging the viewer to interpret her fleeting, often minimal shifts of expression. She has the great advantage of a face that belongs to no particular period, social bracket, even age group, and that isn't burdened by obvious marks of stardom: she's believable in a wide range of roles in a way that, say, the ostentatiously glamorous Emmanuelle Béart isn't. She slips easily into historical parts: Clara Schumann, Marie Curie, Madame de Maintenon. For Olivier Assayas, Huppert is rare in that she has allowed her face to acquire its own history. "She has never tried to hide the aging process. With many actresses, the face freezes in time and loses that capacity to transform itself. Isabelle's face is so alive and she can move so fast from one emotion to the other."

Skimming past interviews, what often emerges from Huppert's remarks is a personal philosophy of opacity and inscrutability. She has described herself as "just an actress. I exist in my roles". Other people are unknowable, she has said: "They may be sitting next to you, but it's like seeing an iceberg." When I ask how she feels about the professional obligation to have a public image, she shrugs. "An image is always inaccurate," she replies. "A true image is impossible. It's especially impossible of an actress. And it ought not to exist anyway." The implication is that Huppert's "self", whatever that may be, need not concern us. She has also commented, "I see acting as something that goes on between me and myself. There's nothing altruistic about it." It's an unusually honest confession from someone in a trade that often feels the need to justify itself as spreading illumination and goodwill. On screen, you might say that her acting is something that goes on between Isabelle Huppert and the character and the camera (and maybe Huppert's pocket mirror) and the viewer. That the viewer is often placed tantalisingly at a disadvantage in this transaction is perhaps the essence of her talent.

'Ma Mère' opens on Friday and previews at Ciné Lumière, London SW7 (020 7073 1350), Tues

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