Isabelle Huppert Is At Ease On the Razor’s Edge of Humor and Tragedy

Isabelle Huppert Is At Ease On the Razor’s Edge of Humor and Tragedy

In a 1977 interview, a journalist asks Isabelle Huppert if she finds it difficult to play a character who speaks very little dialogue. Her answer, which comes quickly, is no. “In cinema, we can express many things like that, with looks and silences,” Huppert says. “It’s the art of silence.”

Huppert, famous for her drive and beloved for her output, portrays the inner depth of a character through a preternatural control of expression — a trademark characteristic that has resonated across her nearly five decades’ worth of sadists, lovers, mothers and “suffering” women. Cinema, or this “art of silence,” fits Huppert perfectly. And within it, the actress takes on the various roles she has performed with ease. 

Since her debut in 1971, Huppert has appeared in more than 120 films and has worked with an enviable roster of directors, including Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Hong Sang-soo, Mia Hansen-Løve, Maruice Pialat, Hal Hartley, Ursula Maier and many, many more. 

To mark her illustrious career, some of these collaborations will be represented as part of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) CinéSalon series, “Isabelle Huppert on Screen.” Co-curated by Huppert, the program culls together 10 films that attempt to capture the reach of her career and represent works that, as FIAF curator Delphine Selles-Alvarez told ALL ARTS via email, Huppert was “particularly keen on sharing with the American public.”

The series coincides with Huppert’s performance in the off-Broadway run of Florian Zeller’s “The Mother” at the Atlantic Theater Company and the wide release of her latest English-language film, “Greta,” directed by Neil Jordan. 

Ahead of her special appearance at FIAF on March 24, ALL ARTS spoke with Huppert about how she is spending her time in New York City, finding the “tune” of her character and acting with animals. 

What does a typical day in New York look like for you? 

Oh, my day is just about performing in the evenings. Previews [for “The Mother”] started February 20 and opening night was [March 11]. So my life is basically dedicated to performing in the evening. And that’s really lovely. I really enjoy doing it. 

What is it like being in an off-Broadway production, especially in terms of the stage versus acting for a film? Are there any differences or constraints or freedoms? 

You realize, of course, it is different. There’s a certain kind of implication. But when it comes to pure acting, for me, I never made any difference between stage acting and movie acting. 

It’s just a very different situation that everybody knows about, which is in one case you are a living person, and that’s the theater. In the other case, that’s the movies, and that’s, of course, a very different process. But when it comes to define how different it would be acting-wise, for me there is no difference. I perform exactly the same way in both cases. 

I know that you’ve been busy performing, but have you had a chance to take in any theater yourself or do any fun things? 

I saw a number of productions. I saw “Network,” directed by the great Ivo Van Hove, with the great Bryan Cranston, for example. And I just loved it. And one of my next works is going to be with Ivo Van Hove — I’m going to be doing the “The Glass Menagerie” in Paris.

And I saw “Mockingbird,” which I liked a lot, too. Wonderful acting and wonderful staging. And I saw “True West,” with Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke, which I loved. I loved the acting. And I saw a couple of productions at the Atlantic Theater — like “Blue Ridge.” So I was lucky. And now I want to see Glenda Jackson, as soon as I will able to, in “King Lear.” 

Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel in “The Piano Teacher,” directed by Michael Haneke.

Let’s talk about “Greta.” You mentioned in other interviews that the character is different from any other that you’ve played in the sense that she’s a complete “monster.” What did you like about playing this character and was it liberating to obliterate that line between good and evil? 

Yes, I felt I should be very specific about that character, because I know that I’m known for supposedly playing very extreme characters and characters that are really harsh, and so I wanted to mark a difference between “Greta.”

“Greta” is more like a film genre, also, where you come up with these kind of prototypes of the good and the bad, and the film is mostly taken like almost a fairy tale, with these kind of prototypes. So nothing to do with characters like in “The Piano Teacher” or “Elle,” even — those were more like an exploration of the female psyche. “Greta” is not exactly in the same place, nor in the same situation. 

But I enjoyed a lot of doing her, yeah. It was fun, of course. Because, due to Neil Jordan’s perspective and staging, the movie is also very funny, there’s this breath of humor. There’s something campy about the film that shouldn’t be ignored, and that’s the angle through which you should see this film. 

In a lot of your films you have this distinct ability to bring in humor, even if the material is really darker or more tragic. How do you approach using humor, and how do you inject that into your roles? 

Well, I just do it, I think. I love doing it. For me, a great film never goes without this tinge of humor and irony. There was a lot of humor in “Elle,” even in “The Piano Teacher,” if you take it, sometimes.

I’m not saying that all movies should carry this humor and irony. Some movies are not meant to do that. But when it’s possible, when you feel that the dialogue takes you there, it’s a pleasure for me to do it. To always be on the razor’s edge. To be, at the same time, dramatic but also funny. 

I think it gives more depth, more lightness also. It doesn’t by any means take the emotion out — on the contrary, I would say. 

Isabelle Huppert in “Mrs. Hyde,” directed by Serge Bozon.

And I feel like in a sense it makes it more realistic because even in real life sometimes things are very sad and tragic, but there’s always a bit of human humor in everything — nothing is ever so bad all the time. 

Yes, exactly. Exactly. Again, not all stories need that, but most of the time it does, sure. And it’s closer to reality. But even in “The Mother,” this play we are doing now — it’s such a pleasure. 

Florian Zeller, the French playwright, who was so talented, he called this play a “black farce,” and it means what it means. It’s black; it’s very dark; it’s very tragic; very sad. It’s very wrenching, but it’s also very funny. And people laugh a lot. 

You have said that rather than bringing a character to life through, say, observation, you build that character’s life from an internal source or from somewhere inside of you, almost as if you’re finding the right tune on an instrument. How do you know when you’ve found the right notes for a character?

Well, I know, you know? I’m an actress. It’s not difficult to find. When the material is good; when the director is good. It always goes with working with someone you trust and someone you admire. And that’s the case. I mean, I never worked with someone that I couldn’t trust.

And if you come from there, it is very easy to find. It’s an assemblage between the story, the character, the other actors, the relationships between all actors, between all characters. A movie is like a mosaic. It’s an ensemble. So, from there, it’s not very difficult to find, yes, as you said, the right tune, because I do believe that there is one tune or one tone for each film. And only if you find it. If you don’t it can be very painful, of course, because you just go at random. 

And do you ever find difficulty in finding that character? 

No, no. If I feel that it’s going to be difficult, then I don’t do it. I can’t thrive on effort — I’m too lazy for this — and I can’t thrive on difficulty. I mean, finding your way in, again, on stage and in the theater, is a difficult journey, that’s for sure. Because theater, it’s part of the process. It’s part of the material, and it can be difficult. In movies, it’s a different kind of difficulty. It can be very demanding physically — you have to wake up very early in the morning. 

But I never found it difficult. I do it easily. 

Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu in “Loulou,” directed by Maurice Pialat.

What makes a successful working relationship with director or another actor? What do you look for? 

What makes it successful with the director is seeing that he really looks at you, that he really sees you — at the same time, in a different way, because each director will look at you differently.

It’s a very nice feeling when you feel that someone really loves you. It’s as simple as this. And really wants to watch you and really wants to film you. And is surprised with what you do; is happy with what you do. Doesn’t work against you, but just makes that mysterious cross between you and the character, between your reality and the fiction, come across.

I notice that there have been a lot of cats that seem to frequent your films and, of course, in “Greta” there’s the dog… 

Yes [laughs]. 

…And I was wondering how it is acting with animals and if you enjoy it?

In my last French film, I loved these big dogs because I’m playing a drug dealer in this film, which hopefully will be out shortly in this country. And, again, I have to work a lot, so that was really my dog year. And I’m not a dog person, to be honest. I’m more of a cat person — I have a cat, but don’t have a dog. And I’m not particularly attracted by dogs. But these dogs were really nice, and they are trained. And I ended up just loving them, because they were really good partners. And such good actors. 

I had a cat in “Elle,” and I had a cat in this other French film called “Things to Come,” a movie by Mia Hanson-Løve, which I loved too — a really good movie, which was out here in the States some time ago. And in that movie, I had a cat also. And honestly, to see a trained cat is even more surprising. You expect from the dog to be trained, but I never expected from a cat to be trained like it was, especially in “Elle.” That scene when I was getting into my house, and the cat jumped on me in the dark, it did it like 10 times, just perfectly. And it was very impressive. Yeah, that was a lovely cat. 

And the cat in “Things to Come,” that wasn’t a trained cat — that was as a non-actor cat, right? 

Yes, I think it was the cat of a friend of Mia. That cat was a bit more difficult because that was a beautiful cat, but it wasn’t trained. And you can see the difference between a trained cat and a non-trained cat. It was a bit more difficult. Sometimes you have to wait… but it was a beautiful cat. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Top Image: Isabelle Huppert in "White Material," directed by Claire Denis.