I have had the privilege of sitting one-on-one with many artists whose work I admire, but I’ve never been quite so uneasy before speaking with Isabelle Huppert. It’s not just someone who I’ve spent some fair amount of time observing onscreen, as well as the woman who might be our greatest living actress — it’s also someone who, by now, has almost certainly been asked just about everything, especially during an ongoing press cycle that’s been especially lengthy. It’s always my goal to ask things that haven’t been brought up before, but the combination made this especially nerve-wracking.
Until I sat down and found someone who’s as blasé as she is ubiquitous, and as open as she is intelligent. It doesn’t hurt that she’s having a banner year with Paul Verhoeven‘s Elle and Mia Hansen-Løve‘s Things to Come — two of 2016’s best films, and ones in which great filmmakers depend on Huppert in a rather tremendous way. Naturally, our conversation began with a brief discussion of jelly beans, which were laid out in the hotel room over several small jars.
The Film Stage: Is this of your own choosing?
Isabelle Huppert: No! Not at all. No, no, no. But it’s nice. But it’s not my choosing, no. You thought it was my wish?
Now that I see all these jars, I thought, maybe, you specifically requested them.
No, no. [Takes jelly beans from jar] Not at all. It’s a nice idea.
Do you have a favorite one?
No. One of your colleagues asked me the same thing, and I thought they all tasted the same — but then he said, “No, some are probably most fruitful, and some are…” I don’t know. To me, they taste all the same: sugar.
There are so many places to begin, and I thought it’d be nice to do so with Iggy Pop, whose “Lust for Life” you dance to in Elle. I can’t recall ever seeing you dance in a movie — maybe with the exception of Heaven’s Gate, when you’re on roller-skates. I’m curious if that more physical aspect, where you’re not necessarily given express direction, is something you like doing in movies, and are comfortable with.
Yes. It’s even more comfortable when I do it on stage. I remember, I did it — in a very spectacular way — when I did Streetcar Named Desire with this Polish director, Krzysztof Warlikowski, with who I did Phaedra at BAM three weeks ago. When we were doing Streetcar, I was doing this crazy dance for some moments in the play, and I loved doing it. It’s sometimes more difficult to do onscreen because, of course, you don’t have the same space and the same freedom, but when it’s nicely staged and the music is good, it’s sort of a matter of how you fit in with the music and with the rhythm. If the music doesn’t fit and if you don’t… because I’m not a natural dancer, it can be very embarrassing and very difficult. But if all elements are well together, it’s nice, yes.
I thought it was very endearing.
Whose choice was “Lust for Life”? Was that in the screenplay?
No. Oh, I don’t remember. I mean, to be totally honest with you, I was completely unaware of the music — in terms of whether it was Iggy Pop. I mean, I was completely unaware of it. I just thought the music was good, but I didn’t realize it was something I knew before, or whatever.
Both films are pretty funny, and you’re a great comedic performer. Many people at yesterday’s Things to Come screening just laughed at so many small gestures.
Yeah. And it’s nice, because I love small things. Yes, it’s only funny with very, very small things. Very little reactions, because it’s a matter of taking things by the comic angle most of the time, and seeing the comic situation in certain characters.
Like putting the flowers in the garbage.
That’s right. Yes, yes.
Do you particularly enjoy doing comedic material on film?
Well, yes, I enjoy anything which is worth being done in films — whether it’s comedy or drama or whatever — and I did pure comedies, of course. I can perfectly do that, if necessary. In those two cases, those are not exactly what you can call “comedies” — except, in the case of Elle, there are so many funny moments that people tend to call the film a comedy. I wouldn’t say it’s a comedy, because that would mean it’s just a comedy, so I’d rather say it’s “also a comedy.” That doesn’t exclude it as “only a comedy,” so let’s say it’s “also a comedy” because, of course, so many of those funny moments in the film… yes. I have to say a lot comes from me, also, because it’s my way of seeing things. It’s a way of acting, you know? It’s a way of viewing certain situations.
So many little moments like this that you mentioned. That scene at the Christmas dinner, you know, where the neighbor, for the first time, puts his hand on my hand, being very flirtatious, and I have this reaction. It could be completely different: it could be, “Oh, my God, why are you doing that?” And then it goes, “Oh, how nice.” [Laughs] How engaging for the very first moment. So it’s all these little nuances that I do naturally because I think it’s my way of being natural. So it’s nothing we really discussed with Paul — but, of course, the material was carrying this. It did have this potential in it.
I recall reading something where you said you’d seen Turkish Delight decades ago and were shocked by it, and immediately thought it was wonderful. Have you followed his career over the decades?
Over the decades, yes. Because, as you put it, I saw Turkish Delight at the very early stage of my life, and I loved it. That movie remained in my mind forever, and I loved that mixture, which is really Verhoeven’s input. It is a very free film, and that was also the reason why, at the time… even in this country, I heard it was released in a semi-porno movie house, because of the nudity, so everybody thought it was pornographic. Can you imagine now? But, still. And then, as the story goes, it goes into something a lot darker, and, finally, it ends like a melodrama, like The Lady of the Camélias, or something — a romantic story of the 19th century. I think Paul has this freedom. It’s just wonderful. To make everything acceptable, he has this huge sense of irony; he doesn’t hesitate to have this sense of humor. It’s also a way of being very elegant with the characters, I think, to avoid any heaviness, any sentimentalism, any psychological heaviness, explanations. So he’d rather give you the possibility to be as ironic as possible. That’s the way he is.
Either way, behind that irony — behind this comic approach to situations — he also lets you get to something darker, something more complex, something more touching. And I love the way he plays with all these multiple layers; it’s really quite amazing, I think. He really never wants to set himself in a genre in particular. He keeps saying, “It’s like life.” Life doesn’t have a genre in particular. You can start your day being very comic, and then, by the end of the day, you can get into a tragedy. Who knows? Hopefully not, but still. And it’s exactly the way he takes the spectator: he takes you to all these multiple paths, and I think it’s quite fascinating. So I just have to follow him to that. You can be comic one moment and be… for instance, let’s take that scene in the coffee place. That woman spills all the food from her tray, but, the minute before, I was light and talking with my lover, and then, all of a sudden, it happens. I like the way one thing comes after the other, with nothing being predictable.
These movies feel lived-in, particularly with the characters’ homes. They look comfortable and are well-detailed, and you can infer things about either person by how they’re designed.
Did you go to those sets and stay there for a while, and try to get a sense of the character’s day-to-day life?
No. I would never do that, because that’s not my matter. You mean to come to the set before and… no. I don’t need that. But the minute I walk onto a set, of course I can clearly understand how much telling is a set or a background in which you put the character, because it says a lot about the character. In fact, I keep thinking that the film speaks for the character by itself. For example: in one case, my character is defined by where she lives. She is a philosophy teacher, so she lives in a certain kind of environment.
In Elle’s case, she lives in this big house with beautiful furniture, and you can feel, immediately, that it’s a wealthy house with a lot of money. It immediately sets my character as a certain social place, so you don’t have to do much about that, because the movie speaks in your place by showing where you live, by showing the situation where you work. If you see someone teaching students or running a big video game employee with a lot of companies around you, it immediately makes the viewer see your character in a certain way, so you don’t have to overact for that. You know what I mean?
And I feel it immediately, of course. It’s like you step into a swimming pool and you feel the temperature of the water immediately. It’s exactly the same with a design around you: you feel the potential and the strength of the place where your character is positioned.
It’d be remiss if I didn’t note that you recently shot another film with Hong Sang-soo.
Yes! In Cannes.
He’s absolutely one of my favorite filmmakers.
Yeah. Well, they’re going to have a retrospective of some of my films at the Metrograph soon, which will open on November 20, on a Sunday, and I will be presenting In Another Country, that film I did with Hong Sang-soo. And we did do another film that we shot in even less days — like, in six days, just before I was presenting Elle in Cannes — and that will be called Claire’s Camera.
And that was shot as the festival was going on?
Sure. Yeah. And it’s so clever, so smart, as it is always with him. Because you feel the festival, because I keep talking about the festival. I’m a photographer, but I have nothing to do with it. I keep meeting people who work in the festival, so you can feel the presence of the festival just by listening to this woman say, “I’m a sales agent selling films at the Cannes Film Festival.” But we filmed everything two streets above the Croisette. If you step, like, ten minutes away from the Croisette, the festival does not exist anymore, so it was so fascinating. And he filmed that.
Have you seen the new one that’s here?
No. I haven’t seen the won he one Best Director for at San Sebastián. That is his last one. But, in the meantime, there is another one coming up, which he did right before or right after that one that was shown in San Sebastián. But I did see the one he did before that one, the last one that was released in Paris. It’s called Right Now, Wrong Then. I loved it; I thought it was brilliant. I love him, anyway. I think he’s such a brilliant director.
You’ve purchased a movie theater in Paris.
Yes! I bought Action Christine, but my son is programming it, and he changed the title. He wanted to renew the brand, so it’s called the Christine 21, for the 21st century. So we own that cinema, now, in Paris. I’m very proud of it.
Do you have any hand in the programming? Do you make suggestions?
No, no, no. That’s his thing. I don’t suggest anything. He’s doing it very well, and he invites a lot of people to present films. We shared that recently with Quentin Tarantino, because Quentin was in Lyon doing a masterclass and presenting many films. He had carte blanche, and I was filming with Serge Bozon, with whom I did Tip Top, in Lyon. Quentin Tarantino has his own movie house in Los Angeles, so we talked about this. It was nice.
Had this business long been an ambition of yours?
I had the occasion to buy the cinema, and so I thought, “Yeah.” I took it. I thought it was wonderful.
Elle opens on Friday, November 11, and Things to Come opens on Friday, December 2.