French actresses don't come much more inscrutable than Isabelle Huppert. In 30 years, Huppert has made more than 70 films, but the air of mystery surrounding her hasn't dissipated in the slightest. Perhaps that is her secret. In her performances, whether she is playing a killer or a courtesan, an unhappy wife or a voyeuristic piano teacher, she invariably wears that familiar impassive expression. It's as if she is defying the audience to guess what she is thinking or feeling. You can't help but be curious about someone who tells you so little and hints at so much.
"It's always a mask," Huppert declares of the characters she plays. "Cinema is like an enigma. The characters are enigmas, too. For me, the real interest is to try to make visible what is invisible - what is behind the mask. I try to dig, to bring to the surface hidden layers. It's interesting to show the double meaning of a person."
The actress (whose career is celebrated throughout November at the National Film Theatre) is in a familiar groove in her latest film, Gabrielle. She plays a seemingly happily married wife, in bourgeois turn-of-the-last-century Paris, who, just like that, flits from home. Her husband is amazed to discover that the beautiful, ostensibly contented Gabrielle has been having an affair with a vulgar, oafish man he despises. It turns out that the woman that he thought he knew so well he actually hardly knows at all.
Huppert isn't exactly an evasive interviewee, but she isn't in the mood to reveal too much of what is behind her own mask. She'll talk in detail about film-makers with whom she has worked, but doesn't let the conversation veer too far toward her private life. As part of the NFT season, there is an extended run of Loulou, the film she made in 1980 with Maurice Pialat. This deals with similar subject matter to Gabrielle, but in a more brutal way. She is again the wife stuck in a stifling marriage, but this time, she has a wild and open affair with a labourer and petty crook (Gérard Depardieu).
"There is something so real, so sensual, so immediate about Pialat," Huppert enthuses. "He was unique, and Loulou is one of the most significant of his films. It was dense with feelings about relationships and cruelty between men and women. It's an eternal subject, the man, the woman and the lover. Instead of secrets and lies, it was all transparent."
It's a testament to how well Huppert has aged that she is still being cast as beautiful and adulterous wives a quarter of a century after Loulou. She doesn't like to be reminded of her age. "Let's not speak dates too much," she proclaims, a little haughtily, when I ask her about her first roles in the early 1970s. Nor does Huppert respond warmly when I try to ask if French cinema is more accommodating to actresses of a certain age than the youth-obsessed industries of the US and UK. "I don't like to answer that kind of question. I am tired of that," she shuts me up mid-stream.
Huppert claims that she gets as much, if not more, pleasure from acting now as when she started out. "You get some recognition and you get rid of your fears, which, as far as I'm concerned, were never much of a burden."
Ask her why she wanted to become an actress in the first place, and she can't explain. "I don't know. It's very mysterious where the desire came from. I took theatre courses at school, but you don't wake up in the morning and say, hey, I want to be an actress. That's not how it works."
Huppert (born in 1953 into a middle-class French family) had started out studying Russian literature, but eventually enrolled at the Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique in Paris. Her film career began in the early 1970s. By 1975, she was firmly established as one of France's leading young actresses, and has been busy ever since. She has a ferocious work ethic. On the day I speak to her, she is midway through the Paris stage run of Quartet, a play by Heiner Müller, inspired by Les Liaisons dangereuses. "I like to do theatre regularly," she declares, as if going on stage is a workout any self-respecting actor needs. "It's not a challenge, just a pleasure." She adds a few fond reminiscences about her stint on the stage in London, in Schiller's Mary Stuart at the National Theatre in the mid-Nineties, and about her enthusiasm for the work of the British playwright Sarah Kane.
As an Anglophile, Huppert says that she is looking forward to seeing Stephen Frears' The Queen. During her lengthy career, she has appeared in movies all over the world but, for no particular reason, has never done a British film. Perhaps her career would have developed in a very different way if the critics and public had responded in a warmer fashion to Heaven's Gate (1980), in which Michael Cimino indulged his folie des grandeurs. It was her first big Hollywood movie, and she played a young immigrant who owned a whorehouse and was caught in a tug- of-war between a sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) and a hired assassin (Christopher Walken).
The film, now acknowledged by many as a masterpiece, was panned, and Huppert's chances of international stardom were nipped in the bud. "The rejection of the film was in a way political," she says. "It was a rejection of the film's themes. It was too harsh a criticism of the States. It was an anti-Western."
Her co-star Kristofferson saw his career dive in the wake of Heaven's Gate. Huppert, however, returned to Europe and resumed working with, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, Bertrand Tavernier and Claude Chabrol. And, no, she doesn't look back with regret. "I was disappointed for the film, not for me. I had so many films lined up, I didn't have time to think. I am just happy I was in that film."
Discussing her career, Huppert sometimes sounds like a French existentialist: "I don't think about what I've done. I'm more concerned with what I do. Of course, I know that what I am doing, I do it because of what I did. But it is behind me." Indeed, she once edited the highbrow Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, and interviewed the cultural philosopher Jean Baudrillard. However, she insists that her approach to acting is anti-intellectual. "For me, acting is very instinctive. I don't think very much."
Huppert is a mother as well as an actress, and has managed to raise three children while working. And, no, she has no desire to take it easy now that she is in her fifties. "I like being an actress. As long as I have the opportunity of being one, I'll take it."
The Isabelle Huppert retrospective is at the NFT (020-7928 3232). 'Gabrielle' opens on 17 November
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