Isabelle Huppert is one of cinema’s most fearless and compelling performers: she can be both powerfully raw and impenetrably composed at once. It is even more impressive that such an intimidating and disarming onscreen presence is disarmingly cheerful and warm in person. She is also a workhorse and appearing in four films this year, including a pair of December releases: her second collaboration with Jean-Paul Salomé (following 2019’s La Daronne), La Syndicaliste, and the upcoming murder mystery romp The Crime is Mine, directed by François Ozon.
La Syndicaliste is an elegant, ambiguous true-crime story that explores women in the workplace, corporate greed, and the slippery nature of truth. Huppert plays Maureen Kearney, a union rep for the massive nuclear company, Areva, who becomes a whistle-blower when she learns of the company’s secret deal with China that threatens thousands of French jobs. While the film has all the trademarks of corporate intrigue (clandestine meetings, fancy boardrooms, mysterious phone calls) it is ultimately about Kearney’s experience with the judicial system after she reports a brutal assault in her home (meant to silence her), and is subjected to suspicion and scrutiny from both the police and Areva leadership.
Kearney is a perfect role for Huppert, a master at playing inscrutable characters. But here, her trademark sangfroid is given additional poignancy: it is precisely this trait that makes her a target of suspicion. In a conversation with The Film Stage, Huppert discusses her approach to playing unknowable characters (and why she doesn’t like the word character).
The Film Stage: I read in an interview that you hadn’t met Maureen Kearney before you started shooting. Correct?
Isabelle Huppert: Right.
But that you were inspired by pictures of her. She has a distinctive personal style: her makeup, hair, clothes. Can you talk about what insights that gave you into her as a character?
Yes, we never met before doing the film. We only met eventually, when she came on set and we talked a little bit, and then, of course, even more after the movie was finished. But that was Jean-Paul Salomé’s idea because he knew her well and knew––as you say, quite rightly––her distinctive way of dressing up. So we decided to follow this pattern, which was very easy for the costume designer and all the people who worked on the physical appearance of the character. She had this specific way of putting her hair up in this chignon. She always looked the same; I never saw her otherwise. And the glasses are quite interesting for a film character because it’s a way of hiding some kind of truth.
And this is what the movie is about: whether she says the truth or not. She didn’t really look like what you’d expect from a syndicaliste, and so we thought it was really interesting. It immediately gave us a cinematic approach to the character. Part of the job was done because it made her look a little weird, I think.
I thought the blonde chignon was smart. It reminded me of Madeleine from Vertigo.
Yes, exactly. I was going to say there’s a kind of Hitchcock-blonde element to her hair.
There’s even a close-up of the back of the hair before going on with the scene, which is very Hitchcock. And like Madeleine, there’s an unknowability to Kearney. If you hadn’t read about the real story, you wouldn’t know whether she was lying or not. So I’m curious how you approach playing a character who’s so unknowable to others.
Well, I think when you do a movie like this––which is so rooted in reality, not only in terms of the individual but in terms of the political and economic background––at some point you have to realize that our purpose is to make a film. If you just stick to reality, you may as well make a documentary. But since you decided to make a film, you have to use all the ingredients that moviemaking gives you. And here that is both the embodiment of her as a character who is mysterious and the ability to make the story into a thriller––as you mentioned, Hitchcockian.
There are these setbacks, if I can call them that, in Kearney’s story that allowed us to make the character cinematic. First: she’s raped in a way that is completely horrendous and quite unbelievable, and it’s precisely because it’s unbelievable that we’re led to the second setback––that people don’t believe her. And, as always, the more you are accused of something, the more you start to resemble the thing you are being accused of. So as the story goes on, she becomes unreadable, mysterious, complex, and ambiguous. And eventually, you find out that she’s a former heavy drinker and she has some psychic problems, and all of that contributes to making her very mysterious and complex. And so it’s a piece of cake for the actress, because it lets you use all the power of cinema to create a character with ambiguity and nuances, all these little signs that she’s not aware of herself. I mean, that––for me––is the power of cinema.
I read in an interview that the moment you read the script, you had an idea of how you were going to approach the role and didn’t need to think about it much more. This made me think of what’s so exciting about watching you perform: I genuinely don’t know what you’re going to do next.
With some actors, you can see the gears moving as they perform. I’m wondering how you manage to stay in the moment.
Well, first of all: I fight against the idea that you play a character. I think that you play a person, and believing this strongly gives me a lot of freedom. I think the idea of a character gives you limitations. Maybe that’s why we went from figurative painting to abstract painting, because, in a way, abstract painting gives you more freedom––you can project your fears and your unconscious into a shapeless form. For me, it’s the same. A character is more like a figurative painting and it’s very difficult to look like somebody else, so if I think it’s just a person, it’s much more vague and then easier to incarnate.
When the directors that I work with––quite rightly most of the time––speak to me about the character by naming her, I say: what are they talking about? It just bothers me because they seem to be speaking about another person, and it would be impossible for me to resemble her––unless you change the appearance completely, like in a horror movie when you want to disguise yourself because you’ve committed hundreds of murders. So I prefer to think that I always play myself with nuances and different states. And that, of course, makes people believe, at the end of the day, that it is a character. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.
Yes, that makes sense. You started performing when you were quite young––17, I believe––and I imagine you have a lot more power and influence on set now. I’m curious how the nature of collaborating with directors has changed for you over the years.
I don’t think it changed. First of all: experience doesn’t make anything different. For me, doing a film is always about doing it for the first time. There are as many differences as you can find from one individual to another. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time: it’s a whole world, a new discovery, so there’s nothing to do with what you’ve learned before. And I’m always amazed at how much each film is like the first time. Whether it is a first-time director, where it is actually their first time, or an experienced director: it doesn’t make a difference. Because you are all nude, in a way. You do it for the first time.
You are still choosing roles that are quite challenging and give you a lot to chew on. What still excites you about working? Are there any directors that you want to work with or genres you’d like to perform in?
Genres you’d enjoy playing in, like horror or comedy…
Oh, yes. I don’t really like these classifications because I do believe that, in dramas, you have comedy; in comedies, you have dramas. Well, obviously you have some movies which are more dramas than others––I’m not going to deny this––but most of the time there’s always a moment where these borders are not so clear. And even if they are, it’s the same pleasure doing both.
It’s perhaps inevitable for me to ask a question about this, but the film is ultimately about a woman divulging her story of sexual assault and not being believed. Over the last few years, women’s stories of trauma, especially in the film industry, have been a part of the public conversation. I’m curious if, from your perspective, anything changed in the making of films since the revelations of Me Too?
For me, no. But I’m just speaking for myself, and that doesn’t mean that many other people weren’t in difficult situations. Maybe when you are a well-known actress, it’s easier. And so I can’t say that, for me, it has changed anything. But it did change a lot for some other people, that’s for sure. But speaking of the film: the story took place in 2012, and I read the script just before the whole Me Too thing happened. And that’s why Kearney had to bear this atrocious suspicion––because not believing women was the common way at the time. Well, it’s still like this, unfortunately, but even more so in 2012. When we first considered doing the story, maybe we didn’t measure to what extent it was going to resonate even more now.
I see. Kearney is interesting to me because she advocates for workers’ rights, but she seems to spend most of her time in the corporate and political world. So I’m curious if this is something that drew you to the character, how she has placed herself in an uncomfortable situation where she is not liked?
Well, she’s a syndicaliste, and that’s a word that resonates a lot in your country right now. It implies that it’s people she fights for. It’s up to 50,000 people because the nuclear company she was working for was huge. So it’s a lot. Her company’s nuclear knowledge and talents were going to be sold to the Chinese, which represented billions. That’s why she became a threat. And this is when her fight became equally political as economical. In the first place, she probably didn’t figure the issue would be so political, otherwise she would not have… well, I’m not sure she would have done less because she was a fighter. She wants to fight for what she thinks is a good cause, which is her fellow’s employment.
I know you’re a cinephile yourself and you love films. I’m curious about your watching habits. Do you watch films when you’re shooting?
I do watch movies frequently, although I don’t watch movies on my computer, for example, because I don’t have a computer. I just have my cell phone. Even though I heard that, in certain situations, people are being advised to do movies in a certain way so it can fit on their cell phones. This is quite horrifying if you still believe in movie-making. But this is a different subject. Yes, I am shooting a movie right now in Bordeaux and I was next to a movie theater, so I would go almost every evening to the movies. I love still going to the movie theaters a lot.
You don’t have a computer?
Well, not one that I carry. I have one in my place. But when I travel, I still read books and watch movies on the plane.
La Syndicaliste opens in NY on December 1, LA on December 8, and will expand. The Crime is Mine opens on December 25 in NY, LA, and Chicago, and will expand.