Cimino, Chabrol, Hanson and Haneke: Isabelle Huppert Reflects on the Cinematic Masters

Isabelle Huppert, often referred to as the greatest actress working today, is an artist with incomparable range.

Few performers can even come close to the body of work she has amassed in over four prolific decades, with a filmography that expands to more than 100 films shot all over the world. Yet last year, two performances revitalized the industry’s interest in her fascinating talent and eventually earned her a slew of awards, from critic circles, a Golden Globe and her first Best Actress Oscar nomination. The nomination is for her work in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, where she embodies a rape victim who goes after her attacker unconventionally. The other, much quieter performance is in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come as a philosophy teacher whose personal life crumbles around her.

At a tribute moderated by Indiewire’s Anne Thompson during this month’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Huppert received the festival’s Montecito Award. She revisited a handful of her most memorable roles and the directors that made them possible. From Chabrol to Haneke, the Oscar-nominated actress humbly remembered those who have accompanied in an enviable journey through the movies. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On Working Seven Times with Claude Chabrol: “He Never Said a Word to Me”

“I met Chabrol the year after I did The Lacemaker and he offered me to do this role of Violette, and immediately the relationship with Chabrol was great because with him—I did seven movies with Chabrol—I found someone who, like me, was naturally intuitive. It wasn’t even about reflection. He never really tended to idealize the characters. He liked to show people the way they were. If they come to be negative characters or unsympathetic characters, it was more because of the situations. So in a way he always showed the characters in a political way. The characters, as unsympathetic as they were, were more the product of their environment, whether it was historical, political, sociological. I liked his way of doing things, and all the movies we did together were always the same—never trying to make [characters] nicer than they were, but just the way they were.

We had a wonderful relationship. In seven films he never said a word to me [about my characters]. Never. Of course, we said hello and goodbye, and talked about many, many topics. He was highly educated, and he was a wonderful man, very funny and very smart. But we never really discussed the characters. He would let me do it the way I wanted. Like Paul Verhoeven with Elle, he never said anything. I’m not saying it as a compliment to myself, but it’s the way usually great directors do it most of the time with actors. You just give them a piece of material and let them shape it with total freedom.”

Isabelle Huppert at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Photograph by Carlos Aguilar

On Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate: “Rejection is Part of the Adventure”

“He found me in a movie theater in New York. Violette was playing at the Paris movie theater, where they usually play French films. He told me he was working in an office not far from that movie theater and one day he walked along this theater and went into it. He had no idea what he was going to see, and he saw a little bit of Violette. I said, “Michael, what scene did you see?” and he said,” I saw the scene where you are arrested in a park.” That’s how he found me.

He wasn’t looking for someone too conventional to run this brothel in the middle of nowhere. When a director wants an actress, it always happens to me like a little miracle. It certainly not something you can control or something you can make happen if it doesn’t happen. It’s a mystery. It’s like love. You want an actor because she fulfills your vision. All of a sudden an actor gives, by his mere presence, flesh and bone, something that was not so much defined and all of a sudden it fits the vision and that’s how directors say, ‘I want you.’

[The shoot] was meant to be shorter. Michael had to fight because he only wanted me to do this film. He was very stubborn, as one can imagine, and he would never let go. Finally here I was. It was said that instead of lasting two months it was going to last six months. At some point we started to speed up a little bit more, otherwise we would still be there [laughs]. The whole adventure was absolutely extraordinary. In a way it was a Western, so it was weird and extraordinary to find myself in this type of film. We had to learn how ride horses, how to ride the carriage, how to roller-skate, dance the waltz. More than everything I think that we all felt that the movie had such a vision, and that was Michael Cimino’s vision. Until he passed away last year, he was a unique filmmaker, pure genius.

[The reaction to the film] was beyond disappointing. When rejection is so strong, one has to immediately understand it on a certain level, which was more possible for me and for the actors than it ever was for Michael Cimino. I think Michael Cimino, in a way, never really made it over that failure, because that was a really profound failure for him. I, who had more distance, who was French, I went back to France. It didn’t affect in the same way it affected him. I was able to see how the failure of the film is included in the beauty of the film, and you can’t disconnect one form the other. It’s one of those masterpieces in which the rejection is part of the adventure. You can’t disconnect one from the other.”

On David O. Russell and Curtis Hanson: “Movies Have Their Own Organic Movement”

“I don’t remember exactly how it happen, but I got this call from my agent who said Curtis wanted me to be in his film, and then the same with David O. Russell. I was happy because they were real auteurs, and I did these movies with them in exactly the same way I would have done movies with French filmmakers. Curtis was an extraordinary director. LA Confidential is one of my favorite movies ever, and I’m sure I’ll be rediscovering his movies more and more.

David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees is really a comedy. He wanted to do a comedy with a very sophisticated twist with all these characters, including my character—almost a caricature of some of the characters I’d been doing in France. I do believe that even in dramas you can find a little bit of comedy, or in comedies you can find drama. Of course, good comedies are more difficult to do with substance and with sense.

David is very special. He would sometimes use the megaphone to direct. I like him very much, but he is special. He can be very crazy sometimes, but also very smart, and you understand that you have to follow him in his vision. Sometimes his vision can be unpredictable, but I like that also. I’m never afraid or scared of any strange behavior from the director. Once they are directors, it’s fine for me. The movies have their own organic movement no mater what. At some point the film itself, in its making, detects what you are supposed to do.”

On The Piano Teacher and Michael Haneke: “I Won’t Do It With Anybody Else”

“With Michael Haneke, we started by not doing a film together, which was a good start. Before The Piano Teacher he offered me Funny Games, which I turned down. I thought that compared to Funny Games, The Piano Teacher was a nice soap opera [laughs]. Funny Games was really an experiment on how violence operated on the spectator, and there was no fiction, it was completely dry. When I read the script I couldn’t do it. Susanne Lothar did it magnificently. That was the first misencounter between Michael Haneke and myself.

Eventually he asked me to do Time of the Wolf, which we did after The Piano Teacher, because at the time I couldn’t do it. Then finally came The Piano Teacher, that was at least four or five years after he asked me to work with him for the first time. He came to me with The Piano Teacher, and he said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, I won’t do it with anybody else.’

Huppert in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

Michael Haneke is an immense director. He is really, really good. I just finished this other film with him called Happy End, which is going to be released soon. The other day I was doing the looping, and he showed me one scene that we did in the film. It was just one scene, not the whole film. I watched that scene, it’s a very long scene, an eight-minute scene between me and my son in the film, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he is such an amazing director.’ The camera doesn’t move, it’s still; it goes on and on. I watched it and I thought, ‘It’s a mystery. Why is it so impressive? Is it the frame?’ He is obsessed with a good frame and with good placement of the camera. There are no camera movements, and it’s just amazing. That’s what a great director is.”

On Amour and Emmanuelle Riva: “She was in a Different Dimension”

“Emmanuelle Riva just passed away two weeks ago. I acted with Emmanuelle in Medea, which we did in Avignon in the theater festival. She was not only an amazing actress—everybody knows that—but she was also a very unusual person. She was completely unique. Emmanuelle had nothing in common with anybody else. She was in a different dimension and I really liked her for that. She was doing it her own way and she was very special.

In that film I was playing her daughter. [The characters of the parents] are in a region that no one can reach, not even their own daughter, and that is the cruelty of that scene and that moment between my character and my father, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. What Michael Haneke wanted to show in that film is that what tied those two people at that moment was unconceivable for someone else, even though it was their own daughter. It’s very cruel. She wants to help but whatever she says sounds completely out of the question.”

On Her 2016 Films, Elle and Things to Come: “They are Not Victims”

“These are two movies about two women, who are shown not the way many people want women to be shown, but the way women are. Not the way they should be, but the way they are. The two films have something in common, and that is primarily the fact that neither character wants to be a victim. They behave in such a way that they are not victims.

[Nathalie in Things to Come] is a philosophy teacher, and that’s very important in the story because she has a certain attitude toward what happens to her, and that helps her. It’s also a portrait of intellectual people, which is nice to show on the screen sometimes.  She says, ‘I have an intellectual life. I’m a thinking person, and it’s certainly helped me to appreciate the world. That’s enough to fulfill myself… I feel fulfilled just reading my books and having a really full intellectual life.’ That’s Mia Hansen-Løve doing justice to this kind of people. There is also something that happens to her without her even predicting it: At some point she also says, ‘My mother has died, my husband left me, my children have gone, I’ve never been so free.’ This woman, all of a sudden, realizes that it’s nice that no one is dependent on her anymore. If you see things through this prism, everything is nice. It’s not loneliness, it’s freedom. Take a little sidestep and instead of seeing things black, all of a sudden you see them white. It’s nice.

[In terms of Elle], the way Verhoeven shows it in the film, it’s almost like she was disconnected from what happened to her, and in the course of the film, you understand that her childhood was initiated through this tragedy—her father was a serial killer. I’m not saying this is an explanation, but it’s information which makes understandable the way she reacted. The rape happened to her, but something even worse might have happened to her, maybe, in her childhood. Nothing is really lined up in the film. I think voluntarily Verhoeven leaves gaps for anybody to fill in, and to give your own interpretation of what happens to her. At the end of the film you have a great amount of questions, no definitive answers, but maybe everybody can give their own answer to all these questions that are being raised in the film.” MM

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