Isabelle Huppert: When the slave becomes the master

Chris Darke talks to Isabelle Huppert about playing a brutalised piano teacher
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The Independent Culture

Isabelle Huppert admits that she's often played characters that are "dominated or dominant" in her 25 plus years as a film actress. Since her career-making break in Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses in 1974 playing a happily promiscuous road-waif, Huppert has grown into an impressive, singular actress. She's a sought-after figure by European auteurs, having filmed with Godard (twice), Chabrol (five times), Pialat and Schroeter, to whose films she brings a unique combination of vulnerability – the ingenuous girlishness of her features is still striking – and steely will. In person, she's courteous and intellectual. On film, she's French cinema's favourite sacrificial femme.

We talk about the reception of her new film The Piano Teacher, based on the novel by Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek. Since its prize-winning premiere at the Cannes Film festival this year, the film has generated a storm of controversy for its depiction of emotional and sexual brutality. Huppert's performance, one of self-immolating intensity, won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes. "I've been to Cannes many times and there's this tell-tale signal of when a film's not working," she relates. "It's the sound of chairs clacking shut as people leave the screening. Tac-tac-tac-tac." She claps out the sound of seats snapping closed. "I thought the film was both more and less shocking than had been expected. It's true that it's a highly shocking film. I've had reactions to this film that I've never had to any of my other films." She's interested to know how it will go down in the UK. "I've an English friend who thinks that English viewers will be very shocked," she says. "Do you think so?" she asks. I tell her yes, I do. But I'm also thinking that if a sense of censorious "scandal" were to surround the film and blind viewers to Huppert's towering performance and to the sensitive direction of the acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke it would be a great shame.

"She's a mutant," Isabelle Huppert says of her character, Erika Kohut. A prim Viennese who teaches classical piano by day, Erika shares a cramped apartment with a clinging, tyrannical mother and loses herself by night in voyeuristic and masochistic sexual fantasies. When Erika responds to the amorous attentions of a handsome young male student (Benoît Magimel) she shocks him into expressing his latent sadistic brutality. "She's not a hysterical woman, to my mind, but a woman who's struggling – in a very maladroit way – to invent a new kind of woman, slightly male," Huppert says, scrubbing her recently-dyed strawberry blonde hair across her brow. "A bit like all women have done over the last 20 years, since women have decided not to be reduced to a strictly feminine model of womanhood. And this is what Erika does, but in such a cruel way that it fails. But she tries. Perhaps she's like that because she takes the father's place in the home – this was something I'd thought about afterwards, not at the time. When I was making the film I was thinking more along the lines of the daughter dominated by her mother. But as in every master-slave relationship there's a moment when the slave becomes master."

Haneke takes the novel's scabrous dissection of Austrian high culture and turns in a film that he describes as "the parody of a melodrama". The basic melodramatic elements are all there – a hothouse family dynamic, explosive sexuality, outward gentility – but reassembled in a shape to shock the Viennese. "I'm going to present the film on 14 November in Vienna in the Konserthaus, where the film was shot. I'm very curious to see the reaction because I think for Austrians the film will be very violent. There's a highly psychoanalytical dimension to the film," she suggests. "One might say that Erika is in a highly phallic relationship to her mother. That she's the father in the couple. She's also the father in terms of her music. Perhaps the music represents a certain kind of masculine ideal. For me cinema is very much linked to the unconscious. Cinema and psychoanalysis both appeared at about the same time. When one undertakes analysis one finds find a strong resonance between analysis and cinema." She pauses at length and adds, "That's not to say that as an actor one undertakes analysis through cinema." When asked how she shrugs off Erika between takes, she laughs, "Oh yes. Perhaps she's so much part of me that I don't even need to shrug her off." Then adds, thoughtfully, "I think that I've rid myself of the role but in fact something of her is so present..."