Isabelle Huppert: Intellectual star of stage and screen

An interpreter in the musical sense of the word, she is like a tautly strung chord, still yet totally attuned to every external change, the slightest touch. Even in the early days of her career as an actress, Isabelle Huppert was identified with the image of an intellectual, taking on roles that depended more on her talent and intelligence than they did on her looks. Going beyond the conventional image of a star, the 51-year-old actress has never hidden behind the mask of the diva or the femme fatale. She is wholly given over to her art, and is much in demand by directors and active both on screen and on stage. Her presence at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival last week bestowed on the event the aura and standards only a great artist can bring. Festival Director Michel Demopoulos presented Huppert with an honorary Golden Alexander and the festival also screened two of her most recent films, «Les Soeurs Fachees,» by first-time director Alexandra Leclere, and «Ma Mere,» directed by Christophe Honore and based on the novel by Georges Bataille. You appear to have a preference for roles that explore the dark, sometimes monstrous side of human nature. What is it that draws you to these roles? I think I am attracted to the light side of the monstrous… The characters I explore allow me to bring out the darkest side of human nature without my having to justify it. I am interested in the agony that is a part of forgiveness, in guilt. The lead role in «La Pianiste» was a very special one. Do you think Erika is a sick woman? Not at all. She is, maybe, neurotic, unable to love. But she is not perverted. She is in an impossible relationship with her mother from which she cannot escape and this triggers a mechanism of self-preservation. She does no harm to others, just to herself. You gave the impression of being entirely committed to your role. Yes, but that’s due to the film itself. As an actress, I would like to feel committed to every film. «La Pianiste» allowed me this. The screenplay may have been very violent, but I believe it is a love story that is exceptionally complex and tortuous, reminiscent of ancient Greek drama. The pianist’s emotions are sharp, raw. European cinema seems to be on the wane, lacking in new ideas. In contrast, Asian cinema is booming. What are your thoughts on this? There is indeed a great variety in Asian cinema, from Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and they are all different from one another. It’s only natural. Each age has its own cinematic trends. Also, we cannot speak generally of European cinema. Spanish cinema, for example, looks very healthy. Italian and German cinema, which seemed to be dying, have began stirring again. As far as French cinema is concerned, I think that it is going through a very rough patch… Investors demand comedies, as if it is some sort of ideological campaign… Do you think French culture is as influential on a global scale as it used to be? Because at times it appears trapped, narcissistic and self-involved. Do you share this opinion? No, because I believe that each culture specializes in its own specific field. It is true that, in terms of representation, Italian, in part, and British cinema are more attuned to social themes. This is not a tradition shared by French cinema. But that’s like blaming someone for having blue eyes when you would rather they had brown… What about contemporary theater? Is it suffering from the lack of challenging new plays? I had the good fortune to act in a play by a very special playwright, Sarah Kane, in «4:48 Psychosis.» In «4:48 Psychosis,» we see the emergence of a completely new theatrical language, which comes from nowhere in particular and borrows elements from poetry and song. It is a language that is real, vibrant, not at all abstract, solid. It is not a dead language. There are very few playwrights who can achieve this. There are a handful in France, like Koltes, and some, maybe, in Germany. I am thinking that in the past, theater and literature were the only means of expression via language. Then cinema began using language as well as the image… I don’t know… Maybe that’s why the language of theater is so difficult to renew… What does «directing actors» mean to you? For a long time, I believed that it meant absolutely nothing and that actors are not «directed,» at least not in the sense of that term. There is a mysterious alchemy that gives or doesn’t give the director the ability or energy, the desire to «capture» the moment. One moment before or one moment after, and it’s something completely different. Because cinema follows certain rules, rhythms, which are entirely musical. It is also the ability of the director to be «absent» in front of the actors, like Flaubert who would fade behind his characters. A director who makes his presence strongly felt is a director who is scared. Because a director who is not scared trusts the actor and the actor is empowered. It’s exactly like what happens with small children. I recently had a very different experience with Patrice Chreau. I worked with him on a film that comes out next spring and I realized that directing an actor is a very gentle push that gives him or her the potential to change. (This interview was translated from the Greek text.) A few words on directors she’s worked with Isabelle Huppert comments on some of the directors she has worked with: Francois Ozon: A very interesting director who makes a different film every time. I think in France people are a bit jealous of him because he is very young and active. He is authentic. Michael Haneke: A great director. When I worked with him on «La Pianiste,» I felt as if I were working with someone who falls between Hitchcock and Bresson. It’s the way he «places» the actor and then lets him play. He is impressively effective and wholly unconventional. Claude Chabrol: A great director with a very special philosophy of his own and a pleasure to work with. Jean-Luc Godard: Godard is a bit like Sarah Kane. He brought a new language to the cinema, made us look at cinema in a different way. He is a poet. Bertrand Tavernier: I’ve done two films with him which I really love. I think he has a greater social sensitivity than other French directors, he bows to an external reality. I’m not sure though, that deep down inside, I prefer his films. But for us, Tavernier embodies the love of cinema. He has great generosity and a profound knowledge of cinema.