Isabelle Huppert

by Théo Jourdain

What Cinema Asks of Us, What Cinema Commands of Us
I find myself practicing talking to Isabelle Huppert—repeating her name in the dull cinema hammered air of my head. The repetition reveals her to me. Up and down, up and down the esplanade in Nice, beneath a creamy blue sky, disguised somewhat, with docile clouds, she gestures, she tilts her head. Everything I say is fucking brilliant.

But in the meantime, I look out the train window at the Belgian countryside. It is not a dream, nor the continuation of a prior description. Some lands are confined in a peculiarly dreary fog, like it’s always November, like you’re just waking up and looking out and you realize you know a name for things, fog, landscape, window—as though they’re mentioning themselves. It’s the same feeling you get when you leave a cinema in the afternoon, when your readjustment to the light is such that you feel like you’ve been born again, into a different existence. The between states—these are what we romantics long for.

Other lonesome travellers lounge haphazardly in their seats. Although I know it’s stupid to think like this, I feel somewhat aggrieved by their presence. As though they’ve the same task as I. As though I’m to share Isabelle Huppert. With them, with these stock jobbers. With these tourists. These families out. The train pierces the landscape.

But this is inevitable. The woman I am to meet in just under an hour has, for the last forty years of French cinema, shaped a figure of immense cultural proportion. She’s been in multiple iconic roles. Won nearly every major award multiple times, Best Actress at Cannes etc. Done almost everything—from arthouse to Hollywood. Her “image” has been elevated to a genuine common reference all along the Old Continent’s cinema. She is a restless professional who appears in sometimes five movies a year. She’s been in 90 films so far, from the frightened virgin teen in Bertrand Blier’s most-famous Going Places (1974) to working with the greats—Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier, and Jean-Luc Godard. She is one of the more prolific and recognized contemporary artists in European culture. And yet, we hardly know much about her. She’s exceedingly private—but it is in the absence of these details, that she is able to assume so much cultural weight. Her mask is on prominent display in the global cultural museum. And this, at the expense of her existence.

The imperfect irony of the machine age ends in the digital recording of a train conductor’s voice telling us to exit. And then the worrisome thought occurs to me—not that I am sharing someone with everyone, but that I am sharing no one with anyone. It may very well be that Isabelle Huppert is no one and I’ll be interviewing the continuation of a pure reflectivity. After all what is a portrait but a mirror, and she is La Femme aux Portraits (the subject and object both, of the lenses from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon to Helmut Newton and Lise Sarfati). How real can one be after Richard Avedon has taken your picture? What happens when a person turns into art?

But as a point of reference she is entirely dependent on a perspective I am entrusted to write—in an American-English I understand as little as Americans do French cinema and celebrity. These are my worries as the doors open, as I step out into Brussels.

Behind a great bank of clouds, a wan sun mutters like a downtrodden man, barely brightening my trembling silhouette. Its light disbands into gray filaments in the damp streets of Brussels. I turn my collar up and head toward the hotel.

Located near the sumptuous opera house of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, the Hotel Dominican is a former cloister, which, after being defrocked, became the residence of the neo-realist painter Jacques-Louis David, depositary and main figure of the French Revolution in the Arts domain. As some anachronistic Gregorian chants plunge the lobby in a warm torpor, Isabelle Huppert barges in. She is a little bit late, but her absence of twenty minutes emphasizes the tremendous aura she has.

And there I stand, my mouth hanging open like a dullard, my tongue stiff as a popsicle stick.

Huppert looks at me, giving a hint of an amused smile as I stammer outmoded greetings. It is absurd, yet the unsuspected proximity she built to her fellow Frenchmen over the years induces this odd ceremonious cooling down. My trouble betrays me. “Oh but you’re French as well!” she notices mercifully, which reminds me of what Guy de Maupassant’s Hautot once told his son: “Come. This is not the time for crying. I have to talk to you. Sit there quite close to me, it will be quickly done and I shall have an appeased mind. The others, please step out of the room and give us a minute.” And there we are in the narrow but well-lit suite, each of us in ornate chairs in a corner in front of a window offering a clouded view of the city. Between us, a makeup artist hastily bustles about Huppert’s face, channeling the tension, unveiling through subtle tones and shades, the effigy’s contour.

And like a magician unfolding a trick before my eyes, the woman of many faces rises. My calm returns to me as Huppert begins to discuss her newest work. Her intelligence is overwhelming, in fact, it helps me lose myself.

Currently, she stars in Amour, an implacable but sumptuous fresco about love on the edge of the abyss, admirably directed by the Austrian master Michael Haneke (Haneke and Huppert already collaborated in the following astounding movies: The Piano Teacher in 2001 and Time of the Wolf in 2003).

Amour has received a moving ovation—and the Palme d’Or—during the last Cannes Festival and is the Austrian submission for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards. It tells the prologue of the nonagenarian lovers Anne and Georges (brilliantly interpreted by the two legendary French actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) on the irredeemable path to the end, when the breath is getting harder to come by and the words useless.

Anne was an artist and musician; Georges was in all likelihood some intellectual whose legacy lies on a pile of dusty books. A window is opened on the touching monotony of this old couple—as we all know—whose passion has been quietly reduced to trifling lovers’ badinages. The sleepless lectures and the glass of red wine at twilight are the rituals performing this enclosed world. The closed piano forever sits prominently in the living room.

One night they attend a concert for one of Anne’s former students (played by the famous pianist Alexandre Tharaud) and then come back home by bus to their dark bourgeois apartment. These are the mundane last moments, barely appreciated or recognized as such. The next morning, Anne suffers a vascular attack and is left half-paralyzed. Que nous reste-t-il de nos amours? Only love in its crueler destitution. He knows all the spells, she has all the charms, and from this alchemy emerges a painful lucidity that only the most powerful mutual trust can allow. The universe dwindles to a narrower and narrower horizon.

The space becomes a performing element of the relation, inhabited but constraining. Huppert tells me as the makeup artist applies blush, “The flat testifies for a whole life which has passed by. Traces of the other lives have vanished away, there are no signs of any form of childlike existence.”

Huppert plays Anne and Georges’ daughter, Eva, who finds herself isolated from her family because of the tragedy that befalls her mother. “When Eva rings the door, her own father barely manages to let her in. It proves she is out of their universe. This movie tells us in a very painful manner about this insuperable—very insuperable—frontier between the dead and the living, or rather between those who are very living and those marching to death.”

Arising as the fourth actor, the décor imposes its own rhythm on the interaction. “It leads a relation, induces the performance. Each human being detains porosity to the props we are plunged in. It adds to the meaning of every movie.” Inaudible adagio of scenery.

In the greatest tragedies our saviors lie nameless, luring from among the crowd this precise note that will bring them to life. We are all totems and mischievous stylizations. Huppert shakes her head when I mention the “characters.” A subtle frown almost forces an apology from me but I resist.

“We are not playing roles. That’s what is powerful in Amour. These are archetypical figures: the mother, the father, the parents, the daughter. It gives a very universal nature and a tremendous truth to the movie. We are telling a story but delivering a history of humanity. There are no particular anecdotes. Nothing happens. But it’s through this level of generality that each can recognize oneself.”

Michael Haneke’s cinema is often acclaimed for its incommensurable knowledge of temporal breathing. The slow term of reflection emphasizes the dramatic tension of image following images. Nevertheless, the vivid movement, the impulse to terrorize the public’s most intimate perception, might not cohere in Amour. It is as though the director’s magic understanding of lines and forms has given itself up and said, “Shades might suffice.”

Solfeggio springs by itself from this “whatever we may be” attitude, this alchemy between actors, whose presence sounds like an absolute obviousness. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant appear gleaming in the halo of their contribution to the history of cinema. Their presence participates in and sets a distance to the story. They break free from the constraining square of the screen to feed on our own sensibility of heaven.

Huppert sighs, “They both have a really particular diction, Emmanuelle and Jean-Louis. Very curious and not totally realistic, which provides them with this oddness and this poetry. The way they tell the words is a world per se. Finally, the presence they have shaped contributes to place ... in the very center of a fleeing world.”

Indeed, she shares with her elders a conception of movies, deeply rooted in theater and living performance. Eva’s sentiments about her dying mother parallels Huppert’s loving worries for a certain French cinema slowly shifting towards an inert patrimony.

Ultimately, the old actors’ deep-rootedness in theatrical forms sounds like a prologue to art itself. “The word they tell opposes them categorically to the world their daughter is still living in, the active life and concrete domain where what is spoken concerns real estate, economic projects, strategic plans to reach wealth. They are already on the other side. Money means nothing to them.”

Love remains a transcendental strength, building bridges between spaces and generations. “Death is a movement, from the immobility with which we started, to something further on. The flat is ventilated and well lit at the end, space turned to the future—you can’t seize it, this desolate place. The desert moves to you. It is soon to be inhabited again.”

Yet, the 40-year-career, now at its artistic zenith, and the nineteen movies presented at the Cannes Festival don’t seem to burden Huppert with the salvation of French cinema. “It does not remain that much after all. I think it’s a joy of the moment. An experience drives away the other,” she says, an artful smile at the corner of her mouth. “It seems a little bit ungrateful but so it is. I guess it’s for the best as well. Both the actors and the director are in the process of fabrication, but only he can build a bridge between the movie’s original shape and the test of the emotion. A director gives a movie its will and reason to exist for the public.” Sitting by the window diffracting this white wet sun, she gazes at the pale reflection of her face mottled with elegant freckles. “I’m just an actress.”

There is no time anymore for discursive extravagances. Huppert is an old-fashioned movie star—sham and coquetry appears superfluous.

But when facing a presumed unidentified territory, she is once more quick to dispel obvious considerations: “There is always some kind of continuity. Haneke is a director I’ve always loved to work with and with whom I share a common history. Generally, when things are easy, it means they are more intense, or they have the opportunity to be so,” she says emphatically. A career seems a succession of various rivulets. They cross and converge, autonomous from one another, but reliant on a larger historical current. But it is the network of tributaries sketching a vast system of relations in which develops any actress’ sensibility. “I got lucky enough with Claude Chabrol, Benoît Jacquot, among others, to take on various, important parts. Even though we always repeat ourselves, a little. Because ultimately, it is always some aspect of yourself on the screen. You can’t run away from it and above all, you can’t hope that that happens.”

Huppert’s performance in Amour lies in this sardonic and cruel position. A measured dispossession fuels the creative movement. In Amour, her absence is a central thread throughout the movie—the explosive energy of expressiveness sets a dissonance with most of the characters she has to confront. “Well, there is always something running free in a movie. Everything is very controlled and prepared but at the same time there is this very organic and savage thing that no one can master, like a wild horse. That’s the excitement of any relation with a director. It helps to accept the contingence, which makes the puissance of a movie at the end that much more powerful.”

There might be no recipe for this sorcery to occur. “Let’s get started!” Huppert declares in an intriguing tone, which contrasts with the profundity of her general expression. As cinema becomes increasingly global, washing along a wide palette of customs and practices, some have drifted off, found themselves in the continuous flow that deconstructs and reshapes, tirelessly, the sensibility of human beings at the forefront, discovering themselves in their movement toward the image.

Huppert is among the continents’ drifters, a straw tossed in this global movement. Starring simultaneously in many different movies from the Cannes-nominated In Another Country by the Korean director Hong Sang-soo to the breathless Brillante Mendoza’s Captive, wherein she plays a humanitarian held hostage in the Filipino jungle—Huppert’s wide range of performances stands out as a labile conversation between various mental territories, highlighting the ubiquity of emotion throughout multiple publics. “Cinema is roughly the same medium regardless of country. There is a camera, a director, a DP, a sound engineer. Unpredictability is still a little bit reduced, but you always end up being surprised. It’s always an adventure to go shoot a movie in Korea with people you objectively don’t share the language with. But you get to find a common tongue.”

Virtuosity bursts off in a tight relation with the core of artistic identity. “Playing in English is a game within the game, you have to take a step back from yourself. Look, we are not doing exactly the same thing. You’re precisely there, in a way, to express, to speak dialogue, whereas as, as a French actress, I’m way more into impressions. These forms of expression are something I can’t imitate; I can’t pretend to be an American actress. I guess I’ve always played my way—even in America—but I’ve benefited from something really solar, irradiating, something that usually doesn’t characterize me. Finally, it creates a very interesting energy.”

Naturally, Huppert’s gamut of feeling on screen seems consistent with a certain harsh manière d’être. We sorely need stories—damned to endlessly consume our lives on the screen. Yet there are some figures whose majestic detachment imprints a frightening distance. This is where I find Isabelle Huppert, a dream rekindled by my very waking from it. For sure, Huppert is impressive and disarming. The measure of her words, the way she gauges the situation through brief piercing glances, have the ability of a perceptible tension within a chemical. There is a reaction, a rising. But this is just a form. “An easy emotion is in danger of being a little vulgar. Too much squeamishness is the contrary of sensibility. An emotion grows precisely from the absence of any subterfuge.” Directing thousands of souls to the same emotion sounds like a doomed illusion.

Symphonies are too loud, too dense. Prophets and heroes collapse as their word fails to redress the nature of our inconstancies. “Cinema has its own language which needs to be simplified. It imposes simplicity with the purpose not to be blinded by the pretention of those who wish to tell the truth of real life. A convoluted dialogue in any language—even in French—is harmful for the meaning.”

This cinema, the simple one, resonates in the depth of each experience, in the untold of gaze and respiration. I find myself catching my breath like a rest in a piece of music. The sonata murmurs, the train enters the station. A voice dispatches light, movement. The Belgian landscape appears and disappears behind a waning fog like poorly written notes on a score. According to the variations, the way I pronounce her name, her face changes, the roles change, but the speed at which the film runs remains consistent, across countries, across time.