Like fine wine

Here this week for the annual French Film Festival, actress Isabelle Huppert is only getting better with age

Isabelle Huppert 521 (photo credit: Institut français de Tel-Aviv)
Isabelle Huppert 521
(photo credit: Institut français de Tel-Aviv)
Her famous freckles are not as prominent as they look on screen, and she is so skinny you could miss her when she turns sideways, but French actress Isabelle Huppert has a commanding, if low-key, presence.
At a recent Tel Aviv press conference to promote her role in Copacabana, the closing attraction of the Eighth French Film Festival, and in an interview afterward, the actress, one of the greatest of her generation, reflected on her career. Her daughter, Lolita Chammah, a successful actress in her own right – she plays her daughter in Copacabana – appeared with her at the press conference, and mother and daughter surveyed the Israeli press corps coolly and regally.
Huppert acknowledged that this was her third visit to Israel. Asked whether she had considered not coming this time due to boycott pressure, she said, “I go to all countries to present my films. It’s a cinematographic statement. As for politics, I don’t put my finger into this.” Next question.
While Huppert has been to Israel before, Copacabana marks the the first time that she has acted with her daughter since Chammah became an adult (“She was named for what Nabokov says about the name, that there is no more pleasing sound than ‘Lo-lee-ta,’ not for the story,” explains Huppert), although Chammah did have a small part as a child in Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women.
“It was quite fun to do,” says Chammah of their collaboration in Copacabana. “To put intimacy into a fiction.”
Huppert acknowledges that director Marc Fitoussi cast Chammah first and then looked at her to play the central role, the mother. The film tells the story of Babou (Huppert), a free spirit who has spent most of her life moving from commune to commune and man to man. But when her daughter (Chammah), who is extremely conventional, tells her mother she doesn’t want her at her wedding because she will be an embarrassment, Babou storms off to a Belgian resort town. There, she tries to show her daughter she can make a respectable living selling time shares.
While the stereotype of actresses is that they are all a bit flaky, this is clearly not the case with Huppert, who has been married to Lolita’s father, director Ronald Chammah, for nearly 30 years and has two other children with him.
“Actually it was kind of funny working together. In any fiction, the real private link is less important that what is on screen. But we were laughing at first, we couldn’t take it seriously. It was a bit ridiculous. It took about two hours to get used to it,” says Huppert.
While she admits that “I put a bit of myself on screen in all my characters,” she says that their own mother-daughter relationship is not what you see on the screen.
“The mother has a kind of ’70s ideology...
the daughter is not a product of her values... The gap has become so big between them. They do come to each [other] but in the end they are staying who they are. She [the daughter] is wearing her beautiful white wedding gown, and the mother is with her beautiful Brazilian dancer.”
But Chammah does make an effort to assert her independence from her mother, saying, “I don’t look to my mother’s career, I have my own way of doing things.”
That attitude should serve her well, because Huppert has a career of almost unparalleled success that has spanned four decades. She has made 100 films, starring in most of them. American art-house audiences first got to know her through her role in the 1977 drama The Lacemaker. The story of a shy, working-class girl who meets an upper-class university student on vacation and has a bittersweet affair with him, it was made sublime by Huppert’s quiet but haunting performance. I remember seeing her make her first appearance at the New York Film Festival when the film was shown there. Standing next to the festival director, dressed in jeans and a poncho, Huppert looked much younger than her 24 years and seemed uncomfortable when she leaned forward to say a few words in heavily accented English.
A year later, she was back at the festival not as an unknown ingénue, but as a star in the film Violette, which was that year’s closing attraction. This movie marked her first collaboration with Chabrol, a director with whom she went on to make six more films. She had won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in the title role in that controversial film, a look at a real-life murderer who killed her father and tried to kill her mother.
While the real Violette protested her innocence, as the film shows, she lived a strange double life as a prostitute who appeared to be a docile daughter, and killed to get money for her low-life lover. Portraying this contradictory young woman, who was by turns coquettish, diabolical, virginal and whorish, Huppert commanded the screen and established herself as one of the world’s most sought-after actresses. She has gone on to work with some of the most acclaimed directors in the world, including Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself) and Michael Haneke, who directed her in The Piano Teacher, for which she won her second Cannes Best Actress Award.
Asked about the contrast between working for Chabrol and Haneke, both of whom have a dark vision but express it differently, Huppert says, “These are both great directors, with two totally opposite ways of working... Haneke is very demanding. He has a specific note and tune in mind, and he’s pushing it to the extreme. Claude had a totally different way of doing his mise en scène. He was so strong in what he wanted, you could be one way or another for him and it didn’t matter... It was strange, and interesting.”
UNLIKE SO many actresses who have taken time off, either by choice or due to substance abuse or health problems, Huppert has never stopped working. Like many European beauties, she had a flirtation with Hollywood, but unlike so many others, she chose her roles wisely for the most part, and when she returned to France, her career had been enhanced, not diminished. Her first international role was in the famous flop Rosebud, one of Otto Preminger’s last films, in which she played a rich Greek girl kidnapped aboard a yacht along with several other young women (one of whom was played by Kim Cattrall, better known as Samantha in Sex and the City). The film was notable for the fact that former New York City mayor John Lindsay had a featured role, and little else.
Her next foreign outing was in another film that occupies a special place in movie history, Heaven’s Gate. Directed by Michael Cimino, who became famous for directing The Deer Hunter, the period Western Heaven’s Gate took years to make and was, like Rosebud, a legendary flop. But unlike virtually every other aspect of the film, which has been re-cut and re-released several times over the years, Huppert’s performance drew praise, while the work of her more experienced castmates, including Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken and Sam Waterson, was panned.
Asked how she feels looking back on Heaven’s Gate, Huppert says, “I don’t regret it. This strange destiny is part of the movie. It’s an outstanding film. It has become almost a cult film today.”
In recent years, Huppert has acted occasionally in American independent films, including Hal Hartley’s Amateur and I Heart Huckabees by David O. Russell.
If there is a secret to Huppert’s seeming effortless ability to portray so many vastly different characters, she wasn’t revealing it, although she did discuss her work methods.
“Acting is instinctual,” she says. “I never think when I work. I read the script and if I like it, I do it. You can’t decide what you are going to do when you act. Once you do it, it just happens.”
She admits, though, that there are certain techniques she uses to get close to her characters.
“You find your roles in your shoes,” she says. “You see if she is a flat-heeled woman or a high-heeled woman.”
Babou, for instance, tears around the resort town tottering in stiletto heels.
“You can feel stable on your heels or they can make you feel fragile. You think you go from here to there” – Huppert touches her head first and indicates her feet – “but it goes from there to here,” she says, pointing to her toes and up again.
For the record, the actress seems to feel extremely stable in her open-toed, highwedge sandals.
Agreeing that the role she plays in Copacabana is one of her most light-hearted characters, she says, “I keep getting asked to play unhappy characters, because great roles and drama are usually about unhappy people. But Babou is a happy person, an optimistic character, she is small.
Not in her size, but her life is a small life.
But she has her dreams.”
Not that playing a character like this is necessarily easy.
“Certain comic roles have more to do intimately with you than dramatic roles. In dramatic roles, you play a fantasy of yourself, but in comic roles, you are using your expressions, and yourself, in a way that is closer to who you are,” remarks Huppert.
In spite of acting in so many films, she also finds time to perform in the theater, and recently appeared in an avant-garde production of a A Streetcar Named Desire in Paris, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. “It was strange and adventurous,” she says.
Asked about how she got into films, she is surprisingly vague.
“I didn’t grow up seeing movies. I didn’t see movies at all,” says Huppert, who was born in Paris but raised in a small town. “I guess you could say my mother was kind of a stage mother. She pushed me a lot.”
Told that at this point in her career she must have her choice of roles, she disagrees.
“No one can pick and choose.
That’s an illusion. No one sits on a stack of masterpieces. To do a great thing is so difficult and so rare.”
In recent years, Huppert says, she has become an admirer of global cinema. “Very good news is coming from the world of Asian cinema, from here, and from Romanian cinema.”
Would she ever work here? “Israeli cinema is so rich,” she replies. “I would be happy to share a few cinematic adventures here. We’ve met with some directors while we were here. But I won’t say who.”
La belle époque
Isabelle Huppert is a beautiful woman and a great actress who gets wonderful starring roles.
Nothing is surprising about that – except that she is in her late 50s, an age when most actresses in Hollywood virtually disappear, emerging periodically with their Botox enhanced faces barely recognizable.
Meg Ryan and Nicole Kidman are just two in a long line of serious actresses who now resemble outer-space aliens.
European actresses, particularly French ones, seem to be spared this fate. They remain interesting to directors even as they age. Why the huge difference in attitude on the other side of the Atlantic? There are no easy answers, but it is striking how the divas of the French cinema are flourishing, while their American counterparts (other than Meryl Streep) languish.
Huppert says flatly, “I never felt pressured to change my looks for a role,” through plastic surgery or other intervention.
While she speaks of changing her hair color and style to express a character’s personality, she seems taken aback by the idea that she would even consider plastic surgery.
Her attitude seems to be common to her French peers.
Perhaps no actress has been lauded more for her beauty than Catherine Deneuve. And while it’s possible she has had a nip or tuck over the years (she actually appeared on an episode of the American television series Nip/Tuck), she still looks human.
Maybe working so much keeps her youthful. The actress typically appears in two films a year, and she stars in Potiche, the latest film by François Ozon, which was the opening film at this year’s French Film Festival here.
Deneuve plays the trophy wife of a factory owner who takes over the running of his business when her husband is kidnapped. She also has a role in another high-profile upcoming film, The Big Picture, starring Romain Duris. Claiming in an interview with the Sunday Times that she had been too busy to have plastic surgery, the glamour icon said, “If you want an explanation, you would have to meet my mother. She is 98. It’s genetic.”
Charlotte Rampling, the British actress who often appears in French films, has, like Deneuve, managed to preserve her sensual appeal and her dignity. In recent years, she has blossomed as an actress, triumphing over the sex-kitten typecasting that typified her ’70s career. She has appeared in several roles for Ozon – who seems to make a habit of giving actresses of all ages their juiciest roles – starring in his films Swimming Pool and Angel. In Swimming Pool, she held her own opposite the much younger Ludivine Savgnier, and even appeared nude.
Fanny Ardant, once best known for being director Francois Truffaut’s last muse, managed to continue her stellar career even after Truffaut’s untimely death nearly 30 years ago. She has worked steadily in France and has also looked abroad when the right role beckoned.
She has appeared twice in films made in Israel in recent years. In Hello Goodbye (2008) she played a French Jew who moves to Israel along with her husband (Gerard Depardieu). In Avi Nesher’s The Secrets (2007), she received international acclaim for her performance as a paroled murderer who comes to Safed to seek redemption.
Perhaps not as much a household name abroad as the other actresses on this list, Nathalie Baye also deserves mention as an actress whose beauty and career have deepened as she ages.
Her last film to be released in Israel was Cliente, in which she plays a successful career woman who chooses to purchase the services of a gigolo rather than have a more conventional relationship with a man. Her director and co-star in this film was another French actress, Josiane Balasko. Like Huppert, the stunning and fit Baye has acted for the top French directors, including Truffaut (Day for Night and others), Jean- Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself) and Bertrand Blier (Beau Pere). American audiences will recognize her as Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother in Catch Me if You Can.
So the next time you read about an American actress bemoaning the lack of good roles for older actresses, send her a message suggesting she invest in a French course rather