Isabelle Huppert Will Not Be Defined


“In reality, people are most of the time enigmas.”

Isabelle Huppert is speaking generally, but her pronouncement could apply in particular to two of her characters, created 30 years apart and both on view this month. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself (1980), showing in a new 35mm print at Film Forum Friday through November 25, she is Isabelle, a prostitute prone to dissociation and reciting Charles Bukowski in voiceover. As Maria Vial, a coffee-plantation owner in an unnamed African country in Claire Denis’s latest fever-dream, White Material, opening November 19, she plays a woman blindly determined to continue her business while civil war rages on around her.

“Maria has a real love for the earth—like Gone With the Wind,” Huppert, 57, laughs, speaking on the terrace of the Gramercy Park Hotel last November, when she was in town performing in Quartett, the Robert Wilson–directed reimagining of Les liaisons dangereuses at BAM. Before she and Denis (who is being feted with her own retrospective at the IFC Center this week) teamed up for White Material, their first collaboration, the actress had originally approached the director about adapting Doris Lessing’s 1950 debut novel, the Rhodesia-set The Grass Is Singing. But Denis—whose first film, Chocolat (1988), is a semiautobiographical account of growing up in a French colonial outpost in Cameroon—was quick to anticipate the problems in transferring Lessing’s text to the screen. “Claire was wise enough to think that it might not be a good idea to do that book because it’s clearly about a certain time in that particular history of colonialism,” Huppert explains. “The woman in Lessing’s book is clearly a victim; she’s a sort of Madame Bovary of the bush, falling in love with this black man, which was beyond all possibility at the time, and was becoming mad in that situation. I think Claire wanted to set up a different situation: with the same woman, but as she would have progressed over the years,” to the ’80s or ’90s (though the exact date is unspecified in Denis’s film). “She wanted a more active woman, less of a victim.”

Huppert, one of cinema’s most fearless performers, has certainly never stopped in her nearly-40-year career, performing in more than 90 films and distinguishing herself as a titan of European theater in productions of Orlando, Medea, Mary Stuart, and Hedda Gabler. (No snob, she appeared in the 11th-season finale of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in May.) Within the past decade, she may be best known for playing the sadomasochistic Erika Kohut—partial to genital-slicing and Mom-humping—in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), for which she won Best Actress at Cannes. But the director with whom the actress is most indelibly associated is the late Claude Chabrol; of their three-decade working relationship—which includes Violette (1978), Story of Women (1988), La cérémonie (1995), and Comedy of Power (2006)—Huppert said in a recent phone conversation, “I think we really got on well in this idea that the world is neither good nor bad.”

And it’s precisely this idea in White Material that appealed to the actress. For Huppert, the power of both Denis’s movie and her character lies in the fact that neither is overdetermined. “The film goes way beyond any classification. It’s not the ‘bad white’ versus the ‘good black’; it’s not this Manicheanism,” she says. “It shows that everybody, at a certain point, is mad. If the world produces situations with child soldiers, it means that the world is crazy. And you have this woman [Maria], who was supposed to be the most civilized person at the beginning. [But] everybody becomes . . . animals, ultimately, returning to savagery.”

If Maria resides somewhere between good and evil, the key to understanding her, Huppert explains, was in her physical prowess. “Claire had me take motorcycle classes,” the sprite-size actress says. “Not only do I drive a motorcycle [in the film], I drive a tractor, a truck—I drive everything. This was a clue for me, that Maria is physically courageous, which leads to a sort of blindness to the danger of the situation. She just lives and works there; she doesn’t want to understand the conflict because [in her mind] she’s not really part of it.”

Isabelle, Huppert’s character in Godard’s Every Man for Himself, isn’t “really part of it” either, with “it” being the baroque debasements she must endure at her tycoon john’s insistence: Her body submits, but her mind remains resolutely elsewhere. Speaking by phone from Paris two weeks ago, Huppert recalls JLG’s typically cryptic response when she asked him to explain her character: “It should be the face of suffering,” the director told the actress while visiting her in Montana during the filming of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). “At the time, I hadn’t seen [Godard’s 1962 film] Vivre sa vie with Anna Karina [who also plays a prostitute],” Huppert says. “After I saw it, I realized there was a link between these two characters.”

Godard called Every Man for Himself his “second first film,” as it came after a decade of making radical, politically abstruse projects. The film concerns, in Huppert’s usual spot-on assessment, “living in town versus living in the country, living in the system or out of it.” More directly, “it’s also about money and how you sell your body.” Huppert’s body is exposed frequently in her first project with Godard (they made Passion two years later), particularly in a bizarrely orchestrated four-person orgy. But the scenes of Isabelle with her clients emphasize not so much the carnal calisthenics as Isabelle’s grace and defiance—the idea being that, in life, “even if you think you are in the most humiliating situation, you still have a soul, and part of your spirit is untouched.”

Always daring in her choices, Huppert will begin shooting a film in January in the Philippines with provocateur Brillante Mendoza, whose graphic gang-rape-and-dismemberment movie, Kinatay, was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2009, the year the actress was president of the Competition jury. Though Huppert can say only that “the film is about hostages being captured by terrorists,” it will surely allow the actress to do what she does so incomparably: to create a character who defies simple assessment. “You have a surface life that is a life of compromise,” she explained last fall. “You need that life in order to cope with society. But underneath, so many strange things lie. I like to work on that substance in my characters. And the camera, which is almost like a microscope, is the perfect [tool] to express this troubled and blurred part of yourself.”