A few years ago, I remind Isabelle Huppert, an interviewer asked: "Who does the shopping in your house?"
"And you told him..."
"Somebody does the shopping..."
"That's right. You said: 'Somebody does it. It might be me. It might not.' That wasn't a secret you wanted to reveal."
That article, which appeared in Paris Match in 2004, was by the novelist and film-maker François Weyergans. A great artist in his own right, he is sometimes described as the Belgian Woody Allen. I bumped into Weyergans at a party, while he was assembling his Huppert piece – which remains, by some distance, the most insightful thing ever written about her. When I asked him how it was going, he gave me a look I can still remember: a peculiar mixture of fascination and despair.
Isabelle Huppert – a national icon and one of the greatest film actors France has ever produced – enjoys another, more global, reputation; as one of the most stubbornly guarded interviewees of all time. There are people who are more secretive – Brigitte Bardot and Neil Armstrong come to mind – but, generally speaking, such characters have the decency never to go out. The trouble with Huppert is that she does, just occasionally, agree to surface.
As I wait for her, sitting on a vacant floor of a derelict factory in Paris – she's filming in another part of the building – I can't help but recall lines from her press-cuttings file. These include: "I shift furniture around, before she arrives, to stave off panic" (that from a veteran British interviewer not know as a woman who's easily daunted) and "I foresaw problems – they came" (The Financial Times). "A good day," Isabelle Huppert once told a reporter, "is the day you learn to keep your distance."
She emerges from the set and makes her way across the abandoned shop floor without casting a glance towards me or the assistant line producer she passes, en route. Huppert is small – a little over five feet. The way she carries herself when walking is unusual for an actress, in that she makes no attempt to appear delicate or graceful, to the point that she seems almost flat-footed.
One of her assistants leads me to her dressing-room, and taps on the door with the kind of nervous deliberation traditionally inspired by royalty. She is sitting on a couch, her naturally pale complexion exaggerated by white make-up, still in the robe she has been wearing for this shoot of director Eva Ionesco's script, I'm Not a Fucking Princess.
Huppert has been nominated for more Césars, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, than any actress. Other statistics are less easy to come by. Regarding her age, for instance, two years of birth are posted on the internet: 1953 and 1955. "Don't go thinking that I'll help you out with that one," she told one interviewer, a remark which suggests that the International Who's Who's assessment of her current age as 57 is probably correct.
A mainstream English-speaking audience probably knows Huppert best for her outstanding performance as the genial prostitute in the 1980 epic Heaven's Gate. Michael Cimino's film, seen by some as a Communist Western, also stars Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken. Heaven's Gate divided critics, but not the US public, who disliked it to the point that the picture famously bankrupted United Artists. Film enthusiasts will be familiar with her captivating '
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
performance as Pomme, a jilted hairdresser in The Lacemaker (1977), for which she won a Bafta, and Hal Hartley's characteristically inventive 1994 film, Amateur .
Huppert's apparently reserved and introspective manner has proved especially effective when applied to characters whose behaviour is aberrant to the point of psychosis. In that respect, she is, as has often been said, an actor who would have interested Hitchcock. In Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), she plays Erika Kohut, a repressed virtuoso who lives with her mother, yet indulges in grotesque S&M fantasies. In one scene, visiting a peep-show booth, she fumbles in a waste-bin and recovers a soiled Kleenex which she raises to her nose, then inhales. In Amateur, she is a nun turned pornographer. In the 12-month period which included the making of Heaven's Gate, she noted, "I played three hookers."
On occasions, when visiting a stranger's apartment, Huppert has admitted, she struggles to resist an urge to rifle through her host's wardrobe and drawers. The doors of her own closet remain, figuratively speaking, heavily padlocked – frustratingly given that, in person, she radiates a potential for neurosis that could rival Jack Lemmon or Gene Wilder. I'd originally asked whether we could talk at her house: a request, I now realise, somewhat akin to proposing that we meet in a café on Jupiter. It comes as no surprise to discover that one of her favourite films, as a girl, was the Claude Rains version of The Invisible Man.
While she's settling down, we talk about the late actor Jean Carmet, Gérard Depardieu's best friend, who worked with her on a number of films. In Claude Chabrol's 1978 film Violette Nozière (the story of a notorious 1930s French parricide), she killed Carmet, which was only fair, I suggest, after the way his character behaved in Yves Boisset's Dupont Lajoie, released in the same year.
"Yes. He raped me in that film."
I tell her how I established a kind of friendship with Carmet, and had lunch with him a couple of weeks before he died, in 1991. "A wonderful, really kind man," she says, "with an extraordinary sense of humour. And a great actor." And so it is that, just for a moment, we're getting along. She laughs easily and, by contrast with some in her profession, has interests in subjects other than her own appearance and career. The conversation that follows takes place in a mixture of French, in which she addresses me with the formal vous pronoun throughout, and English. Once we get on to the subject of her own life, she seems more comfortable in English (which she speaks fluently), partly, I suspect, because this avoids entrusting her words to the subjective discipline of translation.
"You're supposed to intimidate people. Is that something you've worked on?"
"No. People who say that have no imagination. Some of them have this childish belief that an actress is like a rose. Just because I've played intimidating characters, they believe I'm like that too. Actually I am very swee..." She stops herself. "I am very nice."
Once I turn on the digital recorder, the mood changes. Huppert mentions how director Maurice Pialat, who cast her in Loulou as Nelly, Gérard Depardieu's girlfriend, "said that you never see the best moments in a film, because they happen before 'Action' and after 'Cut'". And now that she's speaking for the record, Huppert is, so to speak, "on" in much the same way she would be in any other dramatic performance. The flow of conversation stops. She waits for questions. She uses silence rather as management trainees are taught to do, saying nothing in the expectation that the person on the other side of the desk (asking for a pay rise, say) will feel awkward and blurt out a retraction. The less she likes what she's asked, the longer the pause.
"Are you not going to ask me," she says, "why I am wearing this make-up and this costume?"
"I'm more interested to know how, in your new film [Claire Denis' White Material, in which her character struggles to defend her farm against a marauding militia in an unnamed part of Africa] you manage to keep your lipstick immaculate, even when you're being chased through the undergrowth and you don't seem to have a make-up bag."
"That's because this woman, even in the harshest situation, still thinks of having a normal life. The lipstick is an indication of the fact that she's in denial of her predicament."
Huppert, who works tirelessly, actually has two films newly released in the UK. In the second, Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia, she plays a virtuoso pianist called Ann Hidden, a name which, bearing in mind the public perception of her, is a bit like Barbara Windsor appearing in a drama under the name Anne of Cleavage. Both movies, despite their very different settings, are typical Huppert vehicles in that they are subtly conceived, immaculately shot, and proceed at such an unhurried pace that you are constantly waiting for some explosive action which never quite arrives. Her performance in both is extraordinary. That said, if you enjoy vigorous plot and action, it's likely that you'll consider both White Material and Villa Amalia to be the kind of French films that get French films a bad name, and that either will have you out of the cinema and into the nearest Chinese within 20 minutes.
There are moments in both films where Huppert strikes her most typical pose: staring into space, her chin elevated, the corners of her mouth turned down in a gesture of resigned disappointment, her brow slightly furrowed. It's a look I will see more than once in the next hour-and-a-half.
"I remember meeting Gérard Depardieu in the late 1980s and he told me: 'I will never go to Hollywood to make crap films for money.' (That was before 1492: Conquest of Paradise and My Father, The Hero.) "You've avoided doing that. You have always worked with great directors." (Chabrol, Blier, Jean-Luc Godard, Tavernier, among many others.)
"I've managed not to make, er..."
"I've chosen good work that I enjoy. It doesn't always work out."
"And you took the decision, right from the start, not to talk about your life?"
"I did. I never thought that the media was the place to discuss your private life, much less confess. A lot of people like confessing in public. They enjoy it. I don't."
"Of course it all depends what you call 'private'. I remember one experienced interviewer writing candidly about her nerves as she prepared to ask you whether you were married."
"Did she freak?" Huppert laughs.
"More or less. You said: 'It never happened.'" But that question isn't an intrusion into your intimate life. It's a biographical detail."
"Do you live in Paris?"
"With the father of your three children?" (Ronald Chammah, who directed her in a 1987 film, Milan Noir.)
I tell her that the only other man I've heard her previously linked with is the late Daniel Toscan du Plantier (a hugely powerful figure in French cinema; Huppert was his partner after his first divorce, when he was running the Gaumont corporation in the early 1980s.)
She confirms this liaison.
"The problem with saying almost nothing," I tell her, "is that there is a tendency to assume there must be something unusual going on in your life that you're seeking to conceal. As soon as you try to keep something quiet, it immediately becomes the object of interest."
"I suppose that's what mystery is."
We know so little of her, I suggest, that almost nothing would come as a surprise.
"Do you have a pilot's licence?"
"I wish. I hate flying."
"Ever kill a guy?"
"No. At least... not with a single shot. Maybe gradually – day by day."
There is something of a contrast, I suggest, between her highly protective attitude to her emotional life, and the readiness with which she has tackled intimate scenes some chattier actresses would never contemplate. If Huppert's family background and romantic history have long been concealed from us, her buttocks and breasts certainly haven't. Perhaps because I know her earlier films better than the later ones, I have an image of Isabelle Huppert as someone who struggles to keep her tackle on much past the second reel.
"You're a private person, yet as an actress you go out literally naked..."
"Do you understand the point that I'm making?"
(In 1982, the Moroccan-born writer Katherine Pancol broached the subject of her "nude scenes – which", Pancol observed, "are numerous". "They are," Huppert agreed. "And I'm sick of it. I have taken my clothes off a great deal and I've had enough. I've always said: 'Yes, yes, yes.' I can't do that any more.")
Now that she's only a few years shy of a bus pass, I suspect that Huppert may even feel she was exploited, to some degree, by films such as Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses (1973). She's molested by Depardieu in that film, and Blier – genius though he may be – has never been every woman's favourite director. If she has become weary of scenes that consigned her, in the minds of some, to the condition of eternal victim, Huppert has never lost her fondness for conveying mood through barely discernible alterations to her facial expression, or even no expression at all. Her "mysterious inner radiance", to quote one male reviewer, has not appealed to every critic.
"[The legendary film reviewer for The New Yorker] Pauline Kael was pretty rude about you in the early 1980s, wasn't she?"
"What did she say again?"
"'If you want to go to the movies, Isabelle Huppert is hard to avoid, though it's worth the effort.'" Kael continues: 'When she has an orgasm, it barely ruffles her blank surface.'"
"Which is curious," I suggest, "because Kael was never cruel as a writer."
"That doesn't mean she couldn't be a very bad critic."
"What reduced her to that kind of remark?"
"I don't know. Maybe my red hair. Sometimes you just hate someone, don't you?"
"Do you know the English expression: 'Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth?'"
"It has to do with extreme cool, or inscrutability. I find it quite hard to reconcile the image people have of you, with some of the company you've kept."
Huppert was friendly, for instance, with the film producer Jean-Pierre Rassam, who embraced hedonism with an almost Anglo-Saxon zeal. (He arrived at the Plaza Athenée – among the most ostentatiously expensive hotels in Paris – one day in 1972, checked in to suite 321 and stayed for three years, during which period he pursued a life brazenly enlivened by drink and prostitutes. Rassam was married to the actress Carole Bouquet, who was, for many years, the face of Chanel. He died in 1985 of a barbiturate overdose, aged 43.)
"Rassam and I got on very well. On, I suppose, a cerebral level." "Cerebral", like "mystery", is a word Huppert uses a lot. "Cerebral" she likes. "Intellectual" – voracious reader though she is – she doesn't.
"Rassam," she continues, "was so sensitive. So smart. Some people have crazy lives. Some don't."
"How about you?"
"I don't. I keep that sort of turmoil confined to the screen."
I get the sense, rightly or wrongly, that Huppert is highly competitive. While she takes every opportunity to praise directors, when the name of a contemporary actress comes up, she doesn't waste her time on perfunctory compliments.
"Was it Bertrand Tavernier who said: 'Huppert wants to be young, young, young; she is obsessed about her age... She's also obsessed by Isabelle Adjani.'"
"Where did you read that? In an article?"
"Yes.[In this newspaper, in 1995]. He did go on to say that, 'She's a much better actress than Adjani.'"
"I have enough confidence in people in general, and Bertrand Tavernier in particular, to think that must be a distorted version of what he said."
And if it isn't?
"That's his problem. Not mine."
It has emerged, by a kind of osmosis, over the years, that she is the youngest of five children, with three sisters and one brother: her siblings are all high achievers, involved in some way with the creative arts. Her father Raymond ran a company that manufactured (appropriately enough) safes. Annick, her mother, was an English teacher and, like her youngest daughter, a gifted pianist. Isabelle grew up in the Ville-d'Avray, a suburb of Paris where, in the 19th century, many of the capital's wealthier residents built country retreats. She gained a Russian degree at the Faculté de Clichy, and studied drama at the city's prestigious Conservatoire National. Huppert got her professional start with small roles in television dramas; her supporting role in Les Valseuses brought her to major attention in France.
"You were born in the 16th arrondissement of Paris?"
"Because that was the closest hospital."
She sounds defensive, I imagine because the 16th, like the Chelsea postcode SW3, is a shorthand for privilege.
"All your family are obviously pretty bright."
"'All my family' doesn't mean 'me'."
"So you're the stupid one?"
"No. I think I have a good understanding of my profession. But I can't think of anything else but acting, as a vehicle for what I do."
"Are your parents still with us?"
"When did they die?"
"It's a matter of chronology."
"I am not going to answer that," says Huppert, feeling, I suppose, that to reply might invite further discussion concerning her early life.
The municipal newspaper of the Ville-d'Avray is somewhat less coy about Huppert's background. Four years ago it ran an article on her family home, based on material supplied by her father, shortly before his death in 2003. The house, called the Ménil d'Avray, is an elegantly appointed building which was completed in 1850, at which time it had its own stables. The estate, which was recently sold, came into the family in 1905 via the Callot sisters, who made their fortune as couturiers, beginning – suitably enough, considering Huppert's breakthrough film – by smuggling lace into Paris. They built up a business with 2,000 employees. One of the sisters was the grandmother of Huppert's mother, Annick Beau. Annick married Raymond Huppert in 1940, and the couple moved into the large house in 1946.
"Did you have a happy childhood?"
"Sometimes. Basically happy."
"Were you aware of your appearance as a child; that you could be physically striking?"
"No. I was probably wrong, because, looking back, I suppose I could be pretty. But I had this strange idea of myself, as a child – almost as though my face was a blank page. Because I had red hair, and a pale complexion, it felt like having no face at all."
"Do you find yourself repeating the behaviour patterns of your parents?"
"Sometimes I feel myself behaving like my mother."
"What form does that take?"
"Curiosity. My mother was a very curious person. And sometimes when I am very... eager to do something."
"Yes. And when I'm silent – when I don't want to say things – well, that comes from my father." '
She gives me a look that discourages further discussion in this area.
"Do you know that thing the southern Spanish say about the Catalans?" I ask her. "That they are so secretive that, if you're in a department store, waiting for the lift, and the door opens and there's a Catalan is inside, they won't even tell you if it's going up or down?"
"That can't apply to me, because... I am going to tell you a little private detail about myself, now."
"I am claustrophobic. I never take lifts." ["I am claustrophobic," Huppert told a French interviewer, six years ago. "I hate lifts."]
"You mean you get panic attacks?"
"Proper panic attacks? With hyperventilation, and everything?"
"Yes. If I get stuck, sure."
"How would you be on the London Underground?"
"No way. It is a tube."
"Have you had any treatment for this?"
In "1980 or 1981", François Weyergans notes in his Paris Match article, "Isabelle Huppert said that she had undergone psychoanalytical treatment for a period of six years and that the choice of her roles was, for her, a way of living out her analysis." He goes on to say that she talked about suffering "Depersonalisation Syndrome", defined as "prolonged or recurrent experience of a feeling of detachment and of having become an external observer of one's own physical or mental functioning".
At other times in the past, Huppert has referred to a near-obsessive need for tidiness, and a sometimes irregular eating pattern that one writer, probably unfamiliar with the laws of libel, described with the adjective "bulimic". There have been times when Huppert has seemed to imply that acting has been a way of retaining her sanity. Has drama been a kind of therapy for her?
"No. 'Actors' say that. I don't even know what they mean. Because that would suggest that, because you explore certain parts of yourself, you end up with some sort of resolution. No. What I know, I know. What I don't know I don't know."
Whatever her mental approach to acting – and that's one of the few secrets she really does like talking about – I don't think I have ever seen her give a bad performance. It wasn't her fault that Claude Chabrol's choice of her to play Madame Bovary, in 1991, was the boldest piece of casting since Harpo Marx was selected to play Sir Isaac Newton in The Story of Mankind. The last kind of Madame Bovary you want in that role, as was pointed out by the critic David Thomson (otherwise a huge admirer of Huppert's) is someone who risks seeming "doomed and contemplating suicide from the start".
Fielding enquiries about areas she isn't keen to revisit, she tends to signal her displeasure more through gestures than words: she has a well-practised expression of withering boredom. Curiously enough, the longest silence she manages in response to a question – almost 20 seconds (so long a time when transposed to the medium of radio, a listener might assume that the speaker had died) – is prompted by the words: "What do you think of your President?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"Well, Sarkozy is hardly the kind of guy you can't have a view on, is he?"
"I think he's... going through a lot of turmoil."
"Would you vote for him?"
"None of your business."
"You've never involved yourself in politics, have you, in the way that Carole Bouquet has?"
"I never read about that."
"Well she did, indirectly, a couple of years ago, when she publicly supported homeless people camping in the Rue de la Banque in Paris. That had political repercussions, didn't it?"
"Everybody has their own way of being a good citizen."
"My way is... my way."
"I have nothing to say about that."
"I can understand that, if you had a strong opinion about Nicolas Sarkozy, you might not want to make it public."
"You are not entitled to ask questions like: 'Who do you vote for?' or 'How old are you?'"
"I'm entitled to ask and you're entitled to tell me where to get off."
"You know what this conversation reminds me of? Have you seen that play Variations Enigmatiques, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, that Alain Delon performed a few years back?"
"No. I know of it."
"It's about a journalist who's sent to interview a reclusive artist, played by Delon. He shoots at the reporter, actually."
"Really? He shoots at a journalist?" asks Huppert, whose sense of humour never quite deserts her. She puts on a "now I'm interested" look. "At the beginning of the interview, or at the end?"
"You have three children – I imagine I'm walking on dangerous territory here..."
"Oh, listen, you've been walking on dangerous territory for almost two hours, so don't start saying that now. This," she adds, very good-naturedly, "cannot get any worse."
"You called your daughter Lolita. Quite a name to live up to."
"That's a reflection of my belief in literature. Actually, Lolita suits her quite well."
"What I mean is, it's a lovely name. It's exactly as Nabokov says. Lo – li – ta."
(In Copacabana,a new comedy by Marc Fitoussi, presented at Cannes in May, Isabelle and Lolita play mother and daughter. Her daughter made her screen debut in Chabrol's Une Affaire de Femmes, aged four.)
Her make-up woman arrives and starts adjusting a false eyelash. Huppert addresses her in the kind of brusque tone it would be advisable not to use to a waiter who is going to be left alone with your soup.
"Do you lose your temper a lot?"
"Sometimes. Yes I do, I have to admit that. When I'm working... the smallest thing can play on my nerves."
"Do you have a reputation as a prima donna?"
"No. I don't have a reputation for being difficult. Because I have been shrewd enough not to let it show."
There are more interruptions, as she is about to be called back on set. As the conversation reverts to generalities, she relaxes again.
"You know sometimes," she says, apropos of nothing, "you can meet people that you admire, or you know through their work, and it's not necessarily a pleasant experience."
"Lou Reed," I volunteer.
"Lou Reed," she says, "is a very nice man."
Eight syllables, I tell her, that I have never heard in that order before.
"Well, Lou Reed was nice to me. He came to see me on stage a couple of times. Then I met him in Paris."
She asks what I'm going to do that evening.
"Why, you want to sink a few pints?"
"I wish I could," says Huppert, a line she invests with the very slightest hint of irony. "I'm working nonstop at the moment."
We talk about the difficulty French actors have had, historically, establishing themselves with an American audience; something which Huppert, with her intelligence, experience and linguistic ability, still seems uniquely equipped to achieve.
"That's not how I define success," she says. "A mansion with a swimming pool on [Hollywood's] Mulholland Drive."
I tell her how the actress Shirley MacLaine once said that every country has one or two actresses that the nation takes to its heart; performers who are perceived to embody that nation's favourite characteristics. "And the thing is," MacLaine said, "we are never beautiful, not in the very orthodox sense."
"I think that might be the relationship you have with France, a bit like Judi Dench, or Julie Walters, does with Britain."
"I know what Shirley MacLaine meant. There are people who represent a kind of classic embodiment of a country's self-image. And I think – yes. I think I might be one of them."
She doesn't define what aspects of the French self-image she means, but they could involve effortless style, discreet sensuality and – her favourite word – mystery.
"Actually," I tell her, "I don't believe you have any secrets at all. You just can't keep that stuff quiet."
"Oh," Huppert replies, with a mischievous look, "you'd be surprised. You'd be quite amazed at how much you can keep quiet. I think my only real vice... I suppose I can tell you this..."
She pauses, before she delivers what will be my only real scoop of the day.
"My only real vice," she continues, "is broccoli."
'Villa Amalia' (PG) and 'White Material' (15) are both in cinemas now
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies