Isabelle Huppert: "I always feel misunderstood, yet that is also what I seek"

The legendary French actress, now starring in Michael Haneke's "Amour," talks about matters of life and death

Published December 29, 2012 12:30AM (EST)

Isabelle Huppert in "Amour"
Isabelle Huppert in "Amour"

There comes a point when all sinks in quietly, in the midst of prepping or minutes before an interview is to take place, when a journalist ponders on how her subject would turn out, imagining the rhythm of the conversation about to unfold. And there come interviewees like the actress Isabelle Huppert, who transcend expectations, skipping prolonged greetings and cutting straight to the chase — graciously.

Huppert, renown beyond borders and creative collaborations, is reached by phone in rainy Paris. Her voice is crystal clear, her English tinted in her native French accent. She speaks of “Amour,” the masterpiece by director Michael Haneke, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May and is currently Austria’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards. Huppert has a supporting role in "Amour" as Eva, the daughter of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an aging couple faced with their mortality. Eva, a character preoccupied with her own life — her husband, her career — gradually checks in on her parents with more regularity as the situation of the couple (and her mother's health) deteriorates. More than a character of great importance and screen time, she serves as a metaphor, representing life while her parents represent the path to illness, aging and death.

The screen legend spoke with me — with candor, charisma, confidence — about her iconoclastic career, which spans over 100 films; encompasses partnerships with Claude Chabrol, Francois Ozon, Andrej Wajda and Jean-Luc Godard; and comprises countless complex characters on screen and stage.

This is the third time you've worked with Michael Haneke — you began with "The Piano Teacher." What do you like about working with him?

His films may give the impression that working with him is a heavy undertaking, but it’s not. It’s actually easier than what it seems. Like all great directors, what he requests from the actors comes from the way he films them; his staging is so accurate — the way he lights and frames — that as an actor you feel good, you feel you’re being filmed in the perfect way, and your performance comes out naturally. I like to have a relationship of continuity with a director, it doesn’t matter to me whether the role is a lead or a supporting; what matters is the story of our creative relationship.

Tell us about Eva.

Through her, one sees the line between the living and the dead — she is the incarnation of that. She has a lot to tell about her life, her husband, her husband’s love life, her professional life. But there is this unbearable feeling that her own parents are in an unreachable place, a world apart from hers, and they cannot communicate; they are at the end of their lives and she is still in life.

Her father, Georges, says, “Things will go on as they have done up until now. They'll go from bad to worse. Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.”

I think that’s what it is about, getting old and ill. You seclude yourself. It is even more painful here because that exterior world, which is the world of the living, is precisely their daughter. Their lives are headed opposite ways — she is going to live and they are going to die. They don’t want anything to do anymore with the exterior world.

One could describe “Amour,” which means "love" of course, as a film about an octogenarian couple who still love each other and face the twists and turns of a declining life. Yet it is much more than this, isn’t it?

The situation is harsh – it is so difficult to face death; it is so difficult to get old. I like the moment when Anne says to her husband, Georges, “You are a monster sometimes, but very kind.” The movie is very honest. It’s never compassionate, it’s never sentimental, and that’s what touches people. The movie speaks to everybody because it is not an ideal version of love — it is a profoundly humane one. With a movie like this, you make your own interpretation; some people will see it more like a love story, and others as a portrait of a man who is selfish at times.

Why do we need movies in our lives?

That’s a very good question. We need them because it is a different way to make our imagination travel. We can put poetry, intelligence, beauty in movies; it’s a way of re-creating reality, which is important. If you only have reality, that’s not enough. You need transformation of reality, you need painting, music, theater and cinema.

What still draws you to acting?

Preparing a role is a mental process. You can sleep and still prepare a role; you think about it even when you don’t think you are thinking about it. It’s mainly the prospective of meeting a director, that’s what attracts me most to my choices, that’s what gives me the unique pleasure I get from doing what I do.

What's it like being a woman in the film industry today?

I don’t experience it as a battle. I do think it is more natural to be an actress than an actor, despite the common belief that it is easier for men. I think acting is more of a feminine frame of mind. For an actor it may be a battle — I don’t mean financially but rather artistically — because the main quality required is a particular form of passivity and power, and I think it is more difficult for men to accept this type of control. It is easier for an actress to consent to that specific psychological state, which is innate to the profession. An actor, more often than an actress, will inherently want to take over the power in a heightened manner, because deep down he cannot accept what he is being asked.

How much of your self do you incorporate in the roles you play?

A role is more like a trace rather than an imprint. When I act, I am at the same time myself and the self behind the mask of fiction. From the very beginning, and still to this day, I played many characters like survivors and victims, and I always felt they were essential to those films, female leads not in the shadow of men, and central to the overall story. That was my feminism.

Is there a role that epitomizes your legacy?

It’s a combination of all my films. What is interesting is to see them all. I never think in terms of past, present, future. I feel exactly the same as when I first started — that artistic potential was already within me. I didn’t have time to bring it all to the surface right away, but it was there all along. The roles I have done then I could do them now, and the roles I do now I could have done then. I don’t feel I drastically changed in terms of talent, nor do I think my personality dramatically changed over the years. I don’t think you can define what makes a good actress. You are either good or not. Growing up, I was free to do what I wanted to do. I had a classical education and a certain curiosity for things. You can come from anywhere, in terms of social background, and be who you want to be. There is no explanation to why you become an actor — that desire springs out of nowhere.

You once said, “Movies are like letters we exchange in order to give news to each other.”

A movie is a way to mingle and flow between cultures and civilizations. Movies give news from the countries where they are made on issues that preoccupy its people and stories from a director. At the end however, we remain a part of a universal language: the one of the cinema.

Two names come to mind when I think about your acting career: French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol, and avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson.  

I always felt like a butterfly caught in a net with Claude, but it was comfortable to have that feeling of being locked in his net, which was his camera. You could fly, but at the same time you had limitations, and that’s what an actor seeks, that kind of freedom and limitation. That’s what one usually gets from good directors. Robert’s staging is extremely precise, almost mathematical, so as an actor your imagination flies high, there are no limitations on how you want to create the characters; you go wherever you want to go with him, but ultimately you also go wherever he wants you to.

Do you ever feel misunderstood?

I do, but I think we always feel slightly misunderstood and misjudged in life. We should gain strength rather than weakness from it. I always feel misunderstood, yet that is also what I seek. [Laughter.]

By Aysegul Sert

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