Isabelle Huppert: Through a lens darkly

What is a serious French actress who specialises in psychodramas doing in 'I [heart] Huckabees'? Roger Clarke asks Isabelle Huppert
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The Independent Culture

Back in September, Isabelle Huppert attended her first US premiere in a decade, joining her co-stars Jude Law, Naomi Watts and Dustin Hoffman for the I [heart] Huckabees launch at The Grove in LA. That's her, looking quite diminutive, in a line-up with Mark Wahlberg to her left and the film's 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 Heaven's Gate. "She has the most impeccable style and taste but she's also willing to have her face slammed in the mud."

Back in September, Isabelle Huppert attended her first US premiere in a decade, joining her co-stars Jude Law, Naomi Watts and Dustin Hoffman for the I [heart] Huckabees launch at The Grove in LA. That's her, looking quite diminutive, in a line-up with Mark Wahlberg to her left and the film's 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 Heaven's 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, a wealth of serious theatrical work, and the passionate extremes of recent psychodramas such as Ma mère and La Pianiste - Russell's summation of this exquisite actress 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 nihilism into the ears of all who will listen. She's the nemesis of Hoffman and his 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 à 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 remiss of him; if you want a fearlessly intellectual actress, you phone Huppert. 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, there's an extraordinary poise and dignity to what she does, even if it is being gang-raped in Heaven's Gate, drugging and poisoning in Merci pour le chocolat, genital self-mutilation in La Pianiste, or incest and S&M in Ma mère.

It's surprising to discover how tiny she is in the flesh when I meet her in London at the Dorchester. In Ma mère, directed by Christopher Honoré from a Georges Bataille novel and due for release in the UK in March 2005, she fairly towers above the camera in some shots, a terrifyingly meaty dominatrix. It's hard to reconcile this with her almost transparent delicacy in real life. But she's as cool and cerebral as you'd expect (until she hears her sons Angelo and Lorenzo running around in the hotel corridors nearby (her daughter Lolita is now 20 years old).

Huppert was timid as a child. Born in 1955, she was the youngest of five in a prosperous middle-class family in suburban Paris. After an education that involved studying Russian, she took drama courses at the Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique (where she learnt "nothing") and began her acting career in the city's café-théâtres. A number of modest TV roles established her, and she finally began to get noticed after appearing in Claude Sautet's César et Rosalie in 1972, playing Romy Schneider's younger sister.

Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses in 1974 launched her as an international star - alongside Gérard 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 Cérémonie, she played a psychopathic postmistress; in Madame Bovary, she was superbly repressed.

And now 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 preproduction 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 Law after Christopher Nolan enticed him on to a rival project; it's now the stuff of Hollywood legend that Russell, meeting Nolan at a party, put him into a 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 the actors playfully, at least according to Sharon Waxman of The New York Times, who also claims that Russell whispered "lewd" things into his actresses' ears before takes. I didn't ask Huppert, but I suspect that Russell would have thought twice about being lewd to her - 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, a film about incest between a mother and son. "It shares a similar subject matter to Ma mère, which is a bit edgy, shall we say..." Huppert gives a dry chuckle.

Does she deliberately take on controversial roles? "I'd rather not take bad roles in bad films," she observes, coolly. "But I don't take any risks 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." And do people confuse her with her roles, or get frightened meeting her? "Maybe they do, but I'm not aware of it - if you start being aware of that, then you are in bad shape. Some actors get like that, talking about themselves in the third person..."

Asked whether she draws on her own experiences or whether it is a pure act of imagination, she says: "I think it is both - being an actress is a quest for authenticity and a quest for truth." Her roles often deal with extreme mental states - does she have an interest in mental illness? "I think everyone carries it within themselves. I always feel on the verge of falling into something I don't want to fall into, 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."

And might she have gone mad, if it wasn't for acting? "I don't think I'm mad - being aware of what I convey and carry around means that 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 for these roles - isn't it scary? - and I reply that it's the opposite. The more difficult it is the more reassuring it is."

A week later, we talk again on the phone. Huppert is at the Odéon theatre in Paris, taking a break from rehearsing Hedda Gabler, which opens in January. I ask her about Heaven's Gate, which, despite all the reports to the contrary, was actually a good experience for her - she's still on good terms with the film's director Michael Cimino, for example. She says that he's working on a director's cut, to be released shortly, and that she may make another film with him, based on La Condition Humaine, the novel by André Malraux.

But was Heaven's Gate as nightmarish to make as legend has it? "No, it was extraordinary - the nightmare was the failure, you know. I still believe that the movie is a masterpiece. But it was very anti-Wild West, and Americans just don't want to hear bad things about their country."

'I [heart] Huckabees' is reviewed on page 7

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