French icon Isabelle Huppert’s career spans more than four decades, with no signs of slowing down. From her BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer in THE LACEMAKER (1977), to her César Award for Best Actress in Claude Chabrol’s LA CÉRÉMONIE (1995), to her turns in master works by world auteurs from the early 2000s onward (think Michael Haneke’s 2001 THE PIANO TEACHER and Claire Denis’ 2009 WHITE MATERIAL), Huppert has cemented her place as one of cinema’s greatest performers. While she has starred in a number of films that have screened at AFI FEST (Haneke’s AMOUR and Hong Sang-soo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY, both in 2012), we are thrilled to have Huppert in person at the festival this year for the first time ever — as the recipient of a Gala Tribute.
Her blend of spiky intelligence, no-nonsense wit and sensitivity are on full display in two AFI FEST selections this year. In Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE, a Tribute Gala, Huppert plays a powerful woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault while trying to figure out the identity of her masked rapist. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s World Cinema selection THINGS TO COME, Huppert nimbly inhabits the role of a passionate philosophy professor who must navigate two life-altering events.
AFI spoke with Huppert about her films at the festival.
AFI: You’ve mentioned in interview that you read Philippe Dijan’s novel “Oh…” and joined the ELLE project at an early stage. What initially attracted you to this character?
Isabelle Huppert: She is a very unusual person (I keep saying: “I don’t play characters , I play persons”). Fearless, solitary, strong, amoral, generous, hurt, funny, touching, complex, unpredictable.
AFI: ELLE refreshingly presents the character of Michele as simply who she is, with no attempts to explain her ambiguous actions or reactions. As an actress, was it liberating to tackle a role like this?
IH: What was amazingly attractive for me as an actress was the fact that Michele was an unlimited field of experiment. There are multiple hypotheses to explain her behavior, and that allowed me to develop a very interesting character with a wide range of expressions. Not really emotions because she is not an emotional person. That is also something that I liked about her. You can’t even love her for showing a hint of fragility. It makes the whole thing even more challenging. The many reasons why you wouldn’t like her make you love her even more at the end .
AFI: Paul Verhoeven has mentioned that you first saw his film TURKISH DELIGHT when you were young and it contributed to you wanting to become an actress. What was it like to work with him?
IH: Yes, when I saw TURKISH DELIGHT, I loved it. It is such a “Paul Verhoeven film”: he takes you somewhere (it starts as a “peace and love” light romantic comedy, very free and erotic) and he ends up in the opposite direction. All of a sudden you find yourself in tears watching a great melodrama like you would watch [the opera] “La Dame aux Camélias.”
I was always a great admirer of Verhoeven. I think he is a major director. Very free, provocative, daring and profoundly human.
AFI: While Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME is a very different film, you similarly play a character who is dealing with some major life events in subtle, unexpected ways. As Nathalie, how did you get inside the headspace of a woman whose entire world is shifting?
IH: In THING TO COME, a little bit like in ELLE, you literally step into someone’s life and this allows you to follow the least little movement of what she does, feels, says, does not say, hides, shows. The camera becomes your greatest ally for showing subtleties and variations and the inner life of a character.
AFI: What was your and Hansen-Løve’s working style on the set of THINGS TO COME? Based on the beautiful way the film and your character turned out, it seems you two are in tune as artists.
IH: Mia and I were completely in tune. We both wanted the character and the film to be light and gracious despite the turmoil Nathalie goes through. Undoubtedly because Nathalie is a philosophy teacher, the film is almost a philosophical statement: Beyond the sufferings and wounds, she finds peace and wisdom to create a new life for herself.