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French superstar Isabelle Huppert — one of the leads of 1980’s legendary disaster Heaven’s Gate — says she stayed in touch with its director, Michael Cimino, and saw him “a few months before he died [in July]. In Paris.”
The actress — who has drawn acclaim for her role in Elle as a successful businesswoman who is raped by a mystery man, and whose new film, Things to Come, opens Dec. 2 — added: “I loved him, of course. He was extraordinary, probably one of the greatest living American filmmakers.”
But, Huppert said, she believed the turmoil surrounding his picture, which went massively over budget and almost destroyed United Artists, had a terrible effect on him: “Basically he never really, deep inside, he never really got over it. But it was completely inspired. I went there for two months, and then we ended up being there, in Montana, for seven months.”
Huppert last saw the picture in Lyon, France, where it was screened at a film festival. “Michael remastered the print, with new colors,” she said. “It was a bit weird for me, I have to say, because the colors were very different. You know, the colors of the original film were very [muted].”
The actress added: “It was Vilmos Zsigmond, the great cameraman who passed away, too, recently. And Michael and Vilmos didn’t get along so well. After the movie, Michael always thought that it was not the color he wanted. It was a bit sepia-like. And then Michael was very happy with the new [version]. When I first saw it, the green was so green, and the red was so red. It was very, very different from what I saw in the first place. But he was happy that he did it. I think he was happy, because also he was completely immersed in the film again by doing this, because it took him many weeks to do that version.”
Since making Heaven’s Gate early in her career, Huppert, 63, has appeared in some 90 movies (even she is not quite sure of the exact number), including the Cannes release Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and Things to Come, in which she plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for another woman.
Speaking at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and TV earlier this month, while taking part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, Huppert said she was not concerned about fallout from Elle‘s mix of comedy and drama — though she argued that it was a complete misnomer to refer to it as a “rape comedy,” as some have done.
“I think personally, the ‘rape comedy’ is absolutely irrelevant, because it can’t be a ‘rape comedy,’ you know?” she said. “To me there is an integrity to the film. It’s not [a comedy simply] because there’s this huge sense of irony; irony doesn’t mean that a film is comic. It’s two different topics. People get the film in its integrity, in its complexity, in its disturbance. I’m not denying how much Verhoeven is on the razor’s edge. And certain people won’t get the movie. But that’s the risk.”
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY I want to go back to May 1968, which is a time of extraordinary turbulence in France. Students are demonstrating in the streets. President de Gaulle briefly disappears.
ISABELLE HUPPERT [To] an island, I think.
GALLOWAY Where were you then, and how did that affect you?
HUPPERT I was protesting, I was demonstrating. I think it was the first time that we — really, a lot of people — got a political awareness of the world. But it was all very happy. I mean most of it, because some dramatic events happened also, at that time. But, in the main part, yes, it was really, really free, we were happy. It was a great time, yes. And everybody, all schools were on strike.
GALLOWAY That was good, too.
HUPPERT That’s why we were so happy.
GALLOWAY Did you ever feel any sense of danger then? I mean, riot police were storming through the streets.
HUPPERT Not myself, you know. I was raised and I was going to school in the suburbs of Paris. And so we, I didn’t really go to the riots, to the barricade. I was too young, actually. Rather young.
GALLOWAY Yes, in your late teens.
HUPPERT Let’s forget about that.
GALLOWAY I was trying to be diplomatic.
HUPPERT I was like, four years old, yes?
GALLOWAY How did your parents feel about that? And when you said, “I want to go and demonstrate,” did they encourage that, or not?
HUPPERT Well, my mother, she made me apply for a school where I was supposed to learn how to type. She said, well, instead of going to demonstrate she should at least [learn], because, everything was on strike. So we had to learn something in the meantime. But they were very liberal.
GALLOWAY What did they do?
HUPPERT My mother was raising us. And my father was running a company for keys, safety boxes.
GALLOWAY So when you said to them, “I’m thinking of becoming an actress,” how did they respond?
HUPPERT They responded very well. They were very, very encouraging, I have to say. Yes, when I look back, I was very lucky for that, you know. I never had any barriers coming from my family. Just encouragement. Also, I was the youngest of five, and I think my mother always knew I was meant to be an actress. So, I don’t know, sometimes maybe children also fulfill their parents’ secret desires.
GALLOWAY Oh, that’s interesting.
HUPPERT Well, I think it’s true. It’s a universal statement. Sometimes. I’m not saying all parents, but sometimes it happens.
GALLOWAY Do you remember the first role you played?
HUPPERT Oh, I truly do, yes. My father liked to film us a lot. There was this camera and that was my first role, you know, a home movie. He was doing a lot of this. And my very first role on screen was a very strange film called Le bar de la fourche. With the French singer Jacques Brel. Some people seem to know it.
GALLOWAY Who was the director?
HUPPERT It was a very good cameraman who did two films at the same time, his first one and his last one, because he never did another film after. And his name was Alain Levent. He was a very good cinematographer. And that one was absolutely improbable.
GALLOWAY As a teenager, did you appear on stage? And were you scared?
HUPPERT Yes, like all school students, I think I did a play in my school. The common things, I would say. Nothing really exceptional.
GALLOWAY Were you exceptional in it? Was it like coming to life for you?
HUPPERT I don’t think I felt anything special by doing this. I don’t think so, no. Nothing where I really remember obviously saying, “Ah, that’s what I want to do.” And then eventually — still pushed by my mother, I have to admit — she made me apply to a conservatory, a drama school in Versailles, you know, where the castle is. And the king, the former king.
GALLOWAY Not anymore.
HUPPERT Yes, not anymore. So there was a drama school there and then I got a first prize at the end. So that was a little indication that maybe I wasn’t so bad. But this is how I ended up being in one of my first films, which was a film by Otto Preminger, Rosebud. Another completely improbable film, I have to say. Because there was a very famous casting director called Margot Capelier.
GALLOWAY Oh, right.
HUPPERT Yes, a bit like Lynn Stalmaster, you know —
GALLOWAY — who just got the honorary Oscar.
HUPPERT — Yes, the Governors’ Award, but the equivalent of an Oscar, I guess. She was a great, great woman, and she cast me in that movie with Otto Preminger. So I found myself very early in this crazy film, Rosebud, directed by Otto Preminger. A bit crazy, too.
GALLOWAY Tell us about that. [TO AUDIENCE] Do you all know who Otto Preminger was? You don’t.
HUPPERT I have to say I was a little surprised that some people might not know who is Otto Preminger. Well, that’s the flow of generations. And also how things sometime disappear. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine here in Los Angeles about Joe Losey, you know, the English …
GALLOWAY Joseph Losey.
HUPPERT Joseph Losey. And she didn’t know who he was, and it was, wow. It makes a little bit of a shock, I have to say. I know that Losey left America because of McCarthyism and had to move to England. But he was American. He was born in the same town as Nicholas Ray, you know.
GALLOWAY Oh, wow. What was the town? I’m testing you here. You can pass or fail this interview.
HUPPERT It’s the town … maybe Wisconsin — a small town. IMDb! (Laughs.)
GALLOWAY Did you ever meet Losey?
HUPPERT I did a movie with Losey.
GALLOWAY Which one?
HUPPERT The reason why I was talking about Losey is because my next picture will be a remake of Eva, which is a very famous film by Losey, based on a book by James Hadley Chase, and the story takes place here in Los Angeles. I did a film with Losey called The Trout. It’s based on a book by a famous French writer, Roger Vailland, and that was with Jeanne Moreau and myself.
GALLOWAY Were you intimidated by people like Preminger and Losey?
HUPPERT Preminger was a lot intimidating, very. Every day he’d say, “If you are not happy, you go back to Paris.” Rolling his “R’s,” because he had a strong Austrian accent — I think he was originally from Austria. “If you are not happy, you go back to Paris.” He never said that to me, so I was lucky enough to stay. And I was almost like a spectator because the whole thing was like a movie in itself. The shooting of the movie was a movie. Robert Mitchum was doing the movie, first, and then there was a big fight because Mitchum was not always able to work, let’s say.
HUPPERT And he was so great, I liked him very much.
GALLOWAY He was nice to you?
HUPPERT He was very nice. He would write poetry. And he was funny because one day he told me, well, he tried to tell me but he was about to tell me. You know we were standing at the bar together and he said, “Isabelle, do you know, uh,” and then he started singing a song, which was “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” this famous song by Kris Kristofferson. Of course, I had no idea at that time who was Kris Kristofferson. But eventually he said, “That’s my favorite singer on earth, he’s a great poet.” And Mitchum was writing poetry himself. He was supposed to be a good poet. And a few years later when I did Heaven’s Gate, I said to Kris Kristofferson, “Guess whose favorite singer you were? That was Robert Mitchum.” But then, Mitchum left, and was replaced by Peter O’Toole.
GALLOWAY You weren’t so happy then?
HUPPERT No, it was wonderful. I liked him very much. He was very nice. And then he did the film. I don’t know if any of you have seen that very curious object of cinema. I think I only saw it once. Very strange film. Kim Cattrall was in it, and Kim remained a very good friend of mine. We were five girls, being kidnapped by a Palestinian commando. Very strange film.
GALLOWAY Losey, did he teach you anything? Did he bring anything to you in your approach to film?
HUPPERT No, no…
GALLOWAY He’s one of those directors who is loved in Europe and almost unknown here.
HUPPERT Yeah, strangely enough, he’s very highly respected in Europe. I mean, he did great films like The Go-Between, which got the Palme d’Or in Cannes, I think, with Julie Christie. And The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde. I mean, he did really significant films for certain cinephiles in Europe.
GALLOWAY When I was growing up, one of my friends was one of Losey’s best friends — and he loved Bogarde, who’d done The Servant with him. Dirk Bogarde had also done Death in Venice for Visconti. And, he was interviewed and somebody said to him, “Who’s the greatest director you ever worked with?” And he said, “Visconti.” And Losey was, “That bastard. I’m going to kill him!”
HUPPERT Very, very pissed off, that’s for sure.
GALLOWAY We started talking about ’68. Do you think that when you started acting in film, you would have had those very topical films, if ’68 had never happened?
HUPPERT Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I would haven’t thought of putting ’68 in that way, but why not? I think that it started before with the New Wave, but that was some years before me, when the New Wave started. I would say, what happened in the ‘70s and the mid-’70s was more the heritage of what started as the New Wave. I’ve never thought if ’68 changed things aesthetically, you know, or [whether] suddenly everything is a combination of many other things.
GALLOWAY It’s interesting, though, because you know in America, the ‘60s and Vietnam led to what many people consider the golden age of American film, or the second golden age. The 1970s. A great era in American film.
GALLOWAY But ’68 led to a second wave in France, with directors like Maurice Pialat, who were doing a completely different thing than films before that. When you worked with those directors, were you aware of doing something new and fresh and different?
HUPPERT Not really, because these were the first people I’d been working with. It’s not like I had started, like a more classical actress, in movies with directors from before the New Wave and then all of a sudden I find myself in the New Wave. Those are the films I started being an actress with, so it didn’t really mark a change for me, because this is precisely the directors I worked with.
GALLOWAY You worked with Claude Chabrol very early.
HUPPERT Very early.
GALLOWAY Violette Nozière. Did you like working with him?
HUPPERT Oh, yes. I mean, it was obviously one of the greatest encounters of my life, because we did Violette together and the — we waited a long time until we were going to do our second film together, which was Story of Women. And then after that we did a movie together, basically, every other year. I did, I think, seven movies with Claude Chabrol. And he was great, he was really a great man. He was highly educated and very funny, and very easy. I was really lucky that he really liked me, you know?
GALLOWAY Yes, yes. It helps.
HUPPERT He wanted to put me in all his films, each of which was very, very different. I made historical movies; more political movies, like The Ceremony; more literary ones, like Madame Bovary. Even a comedy like Rien ne va plus. I’m not sure this one was ever released here in this country. Only I think The Ceremony was here, Story of Women obviously, and Madame Bovary. And Violette, of course, because Violette was important for me here in this country because that is how Michael Cimino cast me.
GALLOWAY Well, we’re going to come to that.
HUPPERT (Laughs) I went further than you. Faster than you.
GALLOWAY Yes! So, I want to take a look at a couple of these early films. What’s so interesting is that you did two films in quick succession that really put you on the global map. One was Violette Nozière, where you play a killer. And the other one was The Lacemaker, where you play the very opposite kind of character, somebody who is very fragile and broken. Let’s take a look at a clip from The Lacemaker.
HUPPERT I love that you picked out that scene. The last scene, yes?
GALLOWAY You like that?
HUPPERT I love it.
GALLOWAY What makes that character so moving is the restraint, and your refusal to put too much obvious emotion in that. Did you discuss that with Claude Goretta, the director?
HUPPERT I really didn’t really discuss anything. I rarely discuss with the directors, actually. It’s not something that you can discuss. You have strong material, you have a strong story, you have a strong situation, and obviously that situation was very strong and very moving. When the border between sanity and insanity is so close, there isn’t much to say, you know? Just do it. And so you can’t give advice. There was no recipe for doing this. And it’s the case here and in any film. I think that an actor, especially with a role like this and when a role is really the story of a lifetime, you go from A to Z and then the film carries you and makes you do things. That’s the film itself, which is the best advice. It goes by itself. You don’t have to do anything else.
GALLOWAY When you approached that character, did you read about people who’ve had breakdowns?
HUPPERT Oh, no, I didn’t have to. (Laughs)
GALLOWAY (Laughs) Tell us more.
HUPPERT No, I mean, the book was very powerful and beautiful. The book had come out, won the big Prix Goncourt, you know, which is like the Pulitzer Prize in France. It was a great book, and the physical description of the character was very close to me. It’s again one of those encounters with a role, which is very rare in an actress’ life. I mean, it happens. It happened to me a number of times, I have to say. But when it’s so complete, it’s quite rare. There was a very thin border between the end of that love [affair] and the depression [Huppert’s character experienced], to say the least, because it’s more than a depression, obviously. We missed the last part, the very last part of the scene when she comes back to [the sanatorium and] we understand there was a big poster of Greece and, of course, she’s never been to Greece.
GALLOWAY I love the clip that we played, when he asks if there’ve been other men, because you straddle this line. He thinks you’re telling him the truth.
HUPPERT Yes. The whole theme is really about the huge gap between these two people. And he’s more intellectual and he has the words, and she’s very silent and she cannot really explain. I think this scene is extremely cruel, because he knows that obviously she might never come out from the hospital for many years.
GALLOWAY Are you an intellectual?
HUPPERT Am I an intellectual? I don’t think so. Less than people sometimes think, I have to say. (Laughs) But more than some others think.
HUPPERT So, I would say I’m at a good level, you know? No, I don’t think I’m that intellectual. I know some real intellectual people who might laugh, very close friends who might laugh when I’m said to be an intellectual. It’s just, sometimes, an actress maybe knows how to think. When you’re an actress, you are in a very specific position, cerebrally, I would think you know. You are a thinking person but you are in a certain perception of the world between really being conceptual and completely stupid. So you are in between, with a lot of intuition and instinct. And that’s not completely being intellectual because I think intuition is more blurred. It comes from intuition. Instinct. More than really reasoning.
GALLOWAY I saw how moved you were watching this clip. Is that because this character means a lot to you? Or is it because it’s moving to see your younger self?
HUPPERT I think it’s very moving. I had tears. I think it’s an extremely moving story and the movie is still very strong. I’ve seen it recently. I don’t know why, but it still, yes, it’s extremely moving. It really says a lot about how two people can — about the cruelty of something. Because obviously he’ll never go back to her, and it’s very sad.
GALLOWAY You spoke about characters who exist somewhere on this border between sanity and insanity. Many of the characters you’ve played exist on that spectrum. Why are you drawn to them?
HUPPERT I’m drawn to them because they express the extreme fragility of mankind. I mean, everybody has been through this. We all pretend to be very strong, and then in a fraction, you can just break down, at least for me. I guess for everybody. It’s not that I like it; it’s just that it’s so true, it’s so real. It’s so true. It’s just there. Why not face it?
GALLOWAY Is it emotionally difficult for you to play those characters?
HUPPERT Not at all. That’s the good news about it. (Laughs) No, it’s true. It’s nice to do it, you know? It’s not like I was experiencing things. I mean, I’m really like a stone when I do this. When I watch it, yes, it moves me. Because I become a spectator and say, “Oh, my God, I’m so moving.”
HUPPERT But when I do it, nothing. Balzac, you know, our great Balzac, he wrote interesting things about how in literature you keep distance in order to express great feelings. You have to keep a distance — and it’s exactly the same with acting. And I keep saying — actually I steal it from Jeanne Moreau — I heard her say, “One job is to be an actor, the other job is to be a spectator.” Which I think is a great line. And she’s perfectly right. It’s two completely different jobs. I know it because I’m an actor and I’m also a spectator. But it’s completely different. The emotion you go through when you act, it’s just the emotion of doing it. But it’s not really the emotion of —
GALLOWAY — fully feeling it the way the audience does.
GALLOWAY I want to show a clip from another early film you made with Maurice Pialat, Loulou, where you play a very different character. You play a middle-class woman, living with your husband, Guy Marchand, who throws this middle-class life away to chase after a…
HUPPERT A bad guy.
GALLOWAY A bad guy, yes. So she’s the good girl chasing after a bad guy. And it obviously creates havoc with her life. In this scene she’s just come back from spending a night with Gérard Depardieu. And the acting’s really wonderful here. So, I hope you like this clip, too.
HUPPERT I like all clips of me.
GALLOWAY As long as they’re of me, I like my clips?
HUPPERT That’s right.
GALLOWAY I find the acting there wonderful. How did you get there? Did you improvise a lot? What was in the script?
HUPPERT Well, Pialat was very special, you know. I mean, he was really unique and I never found someone like him after. He was special. He knew how to create these incredible moments of improvisation, combined with other scenes which were a lot more rehearsed and controlled. Most of the time when we would shoot — and that happened a lot when we were shooting all those scenes with Gérard in the café — we would start talking and then we would see the camera rolling with the red light on the camera. So we would feel that the camera was rolling and gradually we would get into the scene and start to improvise the dialogue. It was the best thing. He kept saying, “You will never get to see the best films, because it’s before ‘action’ and after ‘cut.'” So that was very encouraging.
HUPPERT He was trying to capture this sense of truth that sometimes one has when one rehearses. That’s why I don’t like to rehearse, most of the time. Because you obviously you lose something. Because only when the camera is rolling do you do that thing you have to do, reality. So he was trying to create all the best possible conditions to capture this sense of life, this sense of naturalism. He was really a great, great director.
GALLOWAY Did you have a script?
HUPPERT There was a script, absolutely. No, there was a script. And in some of the scenes it was more or less. I think that scene, for example, was improvised as you can see in the movement. But yes, there was a script. We followed the lines, there was dialogue. But some other scenes in the film — there was a wonderful scene when we are dancing, with Gérard, you know dancing in a —
GALLOWAY Dance hall.
HUPPERT And then, at some point I remember, I laughed, because something happens. And that was completely improvised.
GALLOWAY I remember that! That was the best —
HUPPERT Yeah, that was improvised.
GALLOWAY — laugh I’ve ever seen.
HUPPERT Exactly. Because something happened that was unexpected. And then provoked a fou rire.
GALLOWAY A crazy laughter.
HUPPERT A crazy laughter, yes. And that was improvised. But he was really special. He was known for being very tough. During the film, he disappeared for three days. And we were chasing him from one café to the other, and at the time there was no cellphone, you know? He was very special. He could be very, very neurotic. He was very provocative.
GALLOWAY In what way?
HUPPERT Well, he liked to say nasty things to people sometimes.
GALLOWAY Including you?
HUPPERT Not so much. But, yes, at the beginning he said, “You are such a bad actress.” I mean, things like this. He just had to. He was very mean to Guy Marchand, I have to say.
GALLOWAY Who in this is excellent.
HUPPERT He was wonderful.
GALLOWAY I didn’t know in this scene if he’s going to hit you at some point.
HUPPERT I wouldn’t have let him. Well, I would have tried to avoid it.
GALLOWAY So in this scene you said, “You can do whatever you want but don’t hit me”?
HUPPERT It’s always risky, you know, when it comes to that intensity of feeling. It can go beyond what you control. But it’s OK. I mean, no one ever died from being hit by his partner.
GALLOWAY Sometimes. When you do a film, do you prefer that improvised style, that naturalistic style? Or do you prefer a more controlled, bigger operation?
HUPPERT I don’t have any preference. First of all, you know, my great friend and a great stage director, Robert Wilson — I don’t know if everybody here knows Robert Wilson — I worked two times with Robert Wilson, in Paris, and in New York, because one of his plays was brought to BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] in New York. Anyway, he keeps saying, “Acting is improvisation.” I like that. By definition, acting is improvisation, even if you follow the lines. You invent what you do, when you do it. But having said that, what people think improvisation is and non-improvisation is, it’s nothing to do with what you like or dislike. It’s all about how it happens with certain directors and certain scenes. That’s the way it works. It’s not something, in general, that you can decide. For example, it could happen more with someone like Maurice Pialat. But if you take The Piano Teacher, some of the scenes, especially the physical scenes, might seem more improvised than others. It’s really something [with which you must] not interfere, I think, you like improvisation, more or less.
GALLOWAY When we were talking the other day, you said you liked to live in the here and now. A stoic concept.
HUPPERT Like a great philosopher. (Laughs)
GALLOWAY How do you do that, when you’re doing films, and when you’re doing takes over and over?
HUPPERT That’s a good question. Because to be “here and now,” in principle, is just for once. And then you have to repeat that. But to me acting and doing movies is really strongly about the present time. It’s all about when you do it. It’s to create this feeling of extreme awareness and concentration. Because it doesn’t happen without an extreme concentration, when you are completely immersed and focused on that. I like to do a comparison — it’s like, tir à l’arc —
GALLOWAY Archery, yeah.
HUPPERT Right. You do it, and the arrow reaches its point when it reaches its point, but not one second before and not one second after. And I think for me acting does have this kind of an intensity and this unique moment, each time. The difficulty and the beauty of it is that you have to repeat that, every take. But sometimes you don’t repeat it. That’s why sometimes, you know, on set, one would say, “Oh, that was a miracle take.” And it happens sometimes. You feel like that was the good one.
GALLOWAY Are there times when the miracle doesn’t happen and you just can’t get that kind of concentration?
HUPPERT Hmm, rarely, I have to say. (Laughs)
GALLOWAY Lucky, wow.
HUPPERT Yes, I’m very lucky. No, I mean, it all depends on how also the director creates that — that’s what it means for me to work with a great director, and this is why I only work with great directors. Because only with great people you can reach [that height] and only they give you that possibility. And to be a great director, what does it mean exactly? It’s not only about a great director, but also about being able to rely on the very special chemistry that goes between them. It not only has to be a great director, but the great director has to make his relationship to you, the actor, very special. And that, obviously, happened to me many times, including Elle with Paul Verhoeven.
GALLOWAY Have you been disappointed by a director?
HUPPERT No, no, I have to say. Well, also, you have to create these conditions. It shouldn’t come only from him. It relies on trust, above everything. And of course you have to create the conditions of a certain belief. And maybe ignoring something that you don’t want to see, at least for the time of the shooting. Because without those conditions of total trust, total belief. … You know, in The Lacemaker there was this scene which I really liked a lot because I always took it as a metaphor for what acting is for me. There was that scene on the cliff, you know?
HUPPERT I wake up and he has me walking with a blindfold on my eyes. And obviously, there is a big danger because one step, I could fall. But I trust. And for me, I always thought that’s the exact metaphor, the perfect metaphor for acting. To go blind, to ignore the danger, and to totally trust.
GALLOWAY Have you ever fallen off the cliff?
HUPPERT No. Never.
GALLOWAY I want to take a look at a clip from a film where you really did have to do things over and over again. It was a very, very difficult shoot. This is Heaven’s Gate.
HUPPERT The whole thing was completely unique in my life. And, that brings me back to Violette, because this is how Michael Cimino found me.
GALLOWAY On Violette Nozière?
HUPPERT Violette was playing in the Paris cinema in New York, near the Plaza Athenee Hotel, where a lot of French films were being played. It’s like a legendary story, but he was casting the role, and then he went down to walk and he walked at complete random by the movie theater. And he saw three or five minutes of the film. And then he went back to the office and he said, “That’s it, I know — her.” That’s what he said. I think it’s true. I don’t know. I hope so.
GALLOWAY Did you like him?
HUPPERT I loved him, of course. Yes, he was extraordinary. I think, for me, until he passed away recently, he was probably one of the greatest living American filmmakers. He was absolutely, he was. The film [is inseparable from the legend of its shooting], the amazing shooting, the rejection. I mean, it includes all that, you know, in the story of that film. And I think basically he never really, deep inside, he never really got over it, you know. But it was completely inspired. I went there for two months, and then we ended up being there, in Montana, for seven months.
HUPPERT That was a very long shoot. And he had this amazing ability to go from the immensely big to the tiny intimacy — the most, the greatest intimacy. A bit like that scene. And the whole thing was absolutely amazing. I mean, to watch him doing it, and just to watch the film. I understand that in this country, it took some time to acknowledge the film as a real masterpiece, which I always thought it was. Even in Europe, actually, in France when the movie was first released, it was not really that accepted. But now everybody reckons that it’s a great, great film.
GALLOWAY When did you last see him?
HUPPERT I saw Michael a few months before he died. In Paris.
GALLOWAY Oh, really.
HUPPERT We were very close. Still very close.
GALLOWAY And when did you last see the film?
HUPPERT Ooh, the whole film? I don’t really — ah, yes, I know, yes. I remember, absolutely. I think, it was a great source of joy for Michael, because he got recognition from the Lincoln Center, some time ago. And in Lyon, we have a — Thierry Frémaux, head of the Cannes Film Festival, has created his own festival. And this is when I last saw the film. There was a huge screening, because it takes place in a huge, huge place, with a very big screen. And because Michael, he commandeered, remasterized —
HUPPERT — the [print] with new colors, I think financed by Sony. And it was a bit weird for me, I have to say.
HUPPERT Well, because the colors were very different. You know, the colors of the original film were very — I mean, it was Vilmos Zsigmond, the great cameraman who passed away, too, recently. And Michael and Vilmos didn’t get along so well. I don’t know, after the movie. I think Michael always thought that it was not the color he wanted from the very beginning. I thought that it was wonderful, you know, but it was a bit sepia-like. And then Michael was very happy with the new copy. When I first saw it, the green was so green, and the red was so red. It was very, very different from what I saw in the first place. But he was happy that he did it. I think he was happy because also he was completely immersed in the film again by doing this, because it took him many weeks to do that version.
GALLOWAY That shoot was really the most famous troubled shoot since Cleopatra in the ‘60s. It almost destroyed a studio.
HUPPERT It did destroy a studio, too. It destroyed United Artists.
GALLOWAY What kind of pressure did you feel from the studio when you were shooting?
HUPPERT I didn’t personally feel the pressure. I think Michael felt it a lot, because at the beginning the shooting was going so slow. So slow that at some point he had to speed up a little bit. Otherwise, you know, after three years, I would have been there.
HUPPERT And then there was some trouble. There were some rumors of Michael to be replaced, and some people came up from Los Angeles. It was all rumors, you know. I mean, there was so many people. It was hundreds of people there in Montana. So we heard some things, and then for some days it was [uncertain]. And Joann Carelli, the producer, was very much in control of the situation. And then, I guess under certain agreements, Michael finally went on with the film. But a bit faster, let’s say.
GALLOWAY After that and Loulou, you had a period when you were around 30 or so when you worked less. Why?
HUPPERT I worked less in France, but I did do movies. That was the time I did another film that I’m really proud that I did, because I think, too, he is a really great director, Curtis Hanson, who just died also recently. I did The Bedroom Window with him. So for some time, yes, I didn’t do French films, but I did a film with a great Polish director called Andrzej Wajda.
GALLOWAY Who also just died, oh my God.
HUPPERT Yeah, my God, that was a difficult year. But Wajda was very, very old [when he died], and Curtis was still very young. And so was Michael. And I think Curtis Hanson was a really, really great director, too. I mean, L.A. Confidential for me is really a masterpiece.
GALLOWAY Is it difficult for you to act in English?
HUPPERT Difficult? I wouldn’t say so. It’s not difficult. It’s just, I feel like, I’m different, of course. It’s not my native language. It’s certainly more difficult on stage. That is difficult. I did it twice. I did once at the National Theatre in London, where I did Mary Stuart. That was difficult, I have to say. Very, very scary. Because it was a huge role and it was a classical, more classical language, because it’s by Schiller. Even though it was a very modern adaptation, still, you know. And then I did The Maids with Cate Blanchett in Sydney and in New York. And so on stage, yeah, it is more difficult. On film, it’s not difficult, it’s just that sometimes I feel like it gives me more freedom, in a way, because also the English is more synthetic. You know it’s a very different language, obviously, from French, though it helps you to say things sometimes in a more direct way. For instance, I saw Chekhov a number of times in English, and I thought that it translates very well in English, for some reason, from the Russian to the English. I was struck — stricken?
HUPPERT — struck how well it translated from Russian. It’s very telling. Most of the time you can say things in a nice way in English. But, of course, I feel different. I feel like a different person, actually.
GALLOWAY I find that very interesting: When you speak a foreign language, it almost changes who you are. And therefore translation is really an impossible art, because you can never capture all our word associations.
GALLOWAY The rhythm.
HUPPERT But also it’s difficult. When I hear someone speaking French — someone American or English speaking French — I can appreciate the accent. But when I hear myself, I don’t know how I sound.
GALLOWAY You sound aristocratic in English.
GALLOWAY Yes, you do.
HUPPERT It’s something that I will never be able to perceive.
GALLOWAY I want to come to another Austrian director that you worked with a great deal. Take a look at a scene with one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever seen in my life — The Piano Teacher.
HUPPERT Which one? (Laughs)
GALLOWAY I wonder if I have time to show two. Maybe I’ll show two, because I really love this performance. You play a classical music teacher who’s really blocked off from the world. And that blockage hides all sorts of masochism, and, if it’s not judgmental, perversion. A student develops a crush on her, and in the first scene we’re going to see, you see her just after she’s had a sexual encounter with him in a public restroom. I hope you like this film as much as I do.
HUPPERT I do. I like all my films.
HUPPERT I told you already.
GALLOWAY This is an extraordinary character you’re playing. And a very complicated woman. When you prepared to play her, did you judge her? Do you say to yourself, “This woman is really a very sick woman”?
HUPPERT No. I don’t think she’s a very sick woman. She’s a woman in love. That’s different. And she wants to keep control, because she’s afraid to be in love, you see. It’s a very simple story, for me. That goes with very complex and twisted ways, but for me it’s almost like the clever princess. Like a grand, classical love story. She puts love in, on such a —
GALLOWAY On a pedestal.
HUPPERT — on a pedestal. Like she puts music on a pedestal. And that was also the beauty of it. The first time she listens to the young boy playing music, she understands through his way of playing music that he might love her, the way he plays music, which she recognizes as seduction, but not love. And immediately she makes a difference between seducing and love. And that’s her quest. She doesn’t want to be seduced. She wants to be loved. And that’s just a great love story. There was a legitimate quest for something. And of course I keep hearing these definitions of sadism and masochism, or whatever it is. I never thought it was about this. No, I think it’s just someone who is afraid to love. And in fact she loses. She doesn’t win in the end, of course, because even at the end, she cannot be the romantic person she wants to be. She does not even succeed to kill herself. She wishes to, but she can’t. So she fails, on the whole, completely.
GALLOWAY Did Michael Haneke, the director, see that the same way as you? Did you talk to him about this being a love story?
HUPPERT We never talked. I never talk about characters with my directors. Never. I never talked with Claude Chabrol. I mean, we say, “Goodbye” and “Hello.” Of course.
HUPPERT We are polite. But we never talked about characters. We never discussed about the characters, in six or seven films with Claude Chabrol. We never said a word about the character. A little bit, before. For instance, Chabrol, about Madame Bovary, said, “I think she has a complex of superiority, and not of inferiority.” I thought that was interesting. Meaning that, instead of doing Madame Bovary as a weak person, on the contrary, she has this completely idealized idea about herself. And that was enough to give me certain clues. But for The Piano Teacher, with Michael Haneke, especially with that film, we never said a word. Michael really wanted my hair in a certain way. He would be a lot more telling how my hair should be, rather than about my character, let me tell you. He was obsessed with my hair. Completely obsessed with my hair. Whenever my hair had to be pulled back, you know, “not like here.” You know when my hair’s supposed to be like in a chignon, you know?
GALLOWAY In a bun.
HUPPERT The least little hair made him hysterical.
HUPPERT It’s a way to direct actors, I guess. But as for saying things about the character, not a word. I think it was clear enough. And I did not even read the book, actually, because it was based on the book by a famous Nobel Prize winner, Elfriede Jelinek. And Michael said, “Don’t read the book.” That’s what he told me, I have to be honest. With Michael, we started by not doing movies together; he wanted me to do Funny Games and I was doing Mary Stuart at the time, in London. He came to London. Gave me the script. I read the script, and I said, to Michael, “No. I won’t do it.” I mean, Funny Games. I never thought it was a great film, but compared to that [and how tough it was] The Piano Teacher was a nice soap opera, you know? In a way. Because there was no room for imagination. The Piano Teacher was romantic; you could imagine. For Funny Games it’s completely different; it’s a very conceptual experience, where, precisely, you cannot imagine. Because it’s all about the relationship between a film and the spectator. And in that film, in Funny Games, he wants to show people how it is when you don’t add the cherry on the cake, if I can say so. Rough material, you know. And it was just unbearable. Nothing to soften it. In any other film, any other fiction in a way, it’s softer. But here it was just, boom — rough. The actors were fantastic, but I didn’t feel I wanted to do it. And then eventually he asked me to do Time of the Wolf, the film we did after The Piano Teacher. But it didn’t happen because I was pregnant. Four times we tried to do a movie together and it didn’t happen. But because he’s very stubborn, then he came with The Piano Teacher. He came to Paris, came to my house, and said, “If you don’t do it, I will never do it with someone else.” That was enough for me to do it. I said, “Oh, my God!” So I hardly read the script, I have to say. Then when I was on the plane, I read the script. I said, “Ohh!” But it was too late.
HUPPERT It’s true. I’m not making it up. I had read the script but not so carefully. And some little details escaped me. And when I read carefully on the plane, I really understood a couple of scenes. And I did it, you know.
GALLOWAY Let’s just take a look at the end of The Piano Teacher, after Isabelle’s character has gone through this emotional angst and is really cracking up.
HUPPERT You see?
GALLOWAY I’m so glad that some people gasped in that moment [were she stabs herself].
HUPPERT We did it 52 times.
GALLOWAY Oh, my God. What?
HUPPERT She’s not even able to kill herself. That’s maybe the reason why she cries. It’s true. But in the book, Elfriede Jelinek says — by the way I still haven’t read the book, for some strange reason.
GALLOWAY But she’s written about you.
HUPPERT Yes, she’s written about me. And I know Elfriede Jelinek from previous times because she was the co-writer [on] a movie I did with a great German director — two movies, with great German directors. Werner Schroeter. And then I did this movie called Malina, based on a book by Ingeborg Bachmann, who’s a great Austrian writer and poetess. And Elfriede wrote the script from that book. So I met Elfriede Jelinek at that time. She came on set once. And so I met her at that time. But I haven’t read the book. But I know that at the end, she says that Erika [Huppert’s character] has a very strange expression on her face, like a horse. She has an animal-like expression. And that’s what we were seeking, you know, that horse expression. So 52 takes, we did. Until five o’clock in the morning.
GALLOWAY Which take did he end up using?
HUPPERT That’s a good question. Next time I see him…
GALLOWAY Better ask him, ’cause next time you’ll say, “I’m not going to do more than three more takes.” Did he use different lenses, different focal lengths? Or was it all the same?
HUPPERT No, the same I think.
GALLOWAY Did you manage to create that emotion 52 times?
HUPPERT Well, probably not. You know, I hope. That’s why I did it over and over again, but more or less. Maybe he was waiting for the miracle take. Maybe that’s the one. I don’t know.
GALLOWAY When you see a film like that, are you able to distance yourself and see, with any objectivity, how good or bad the film is?
HUPPERT No. I can’t recognize how good is the film, but as far as I am concerned, it could [always] be better, you know. When you see a film for the first time, it’s difficult to judge — I mean, to appreciate, not to judge but to appreciate the film for what it is, because you rewind the whole shooting and the whole time of making the film. So it’s a very strange feeling when you see the film for the first time. It’s difficult for me to answer that question, I guess.
GALLOWAY Do you go back and see your old films again?
HUPPERT No, no, no. I don’t have time, because I still have so many films to see. If I took the time to see my old films, I’d rather go and see new films.
GALLOWAY For this role, you not only won the best actress prize in Cannes, but it was unanimous from the jury. Which is pretty extraordinary.
HUPPERT Yes. And Liv Ullmann was head of the jury. She was always my good angel because she was also on the jury when I got best actress for Violette. At the time, Alan Pakula was head of the jury, and I shared the prize with Jill Clayburgh, for An Unmarried Woman.
GALLOWAY You had another success at Cannes this year with Elle, the Paul Verhoeven film, which is the story of a very successful business woman who is repeatedly raped by a masked intruder.
HUPPERT Four times.
GALLOWAY You told me that it didn’t bother you?
HUPPERT It’s enough.
GALLOWAY One of the difficult things about that role is tone. And particularly in this monologue, where you’re revealing that your father killed children, that you yourself were covered in blood. But you’re doing it with a surface of indifference. How do you go about creating that moment?
HUPPERT You have different ways, you know, of going with this kind of scene. So either you say it with a lot of reflection about yourself, about your suffering, about what you went through. I don’t know, I couldn’t do it this way. I prefer to do it like this, you know. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just more real. If you do it with a lot of awareness of how difficult it was, it would be fake. It would be more like fiction. But doing it like this I think I am closer to reality. Many times in real life you say difficult things about yourself, but you say them in a certain way, with a certain distance. Because you don’t want to cry over yourself, you don’t want to have compassion about yourself. It’s not the right place. She might have compassion about herself alone, in her bathroom, but not talking to this man. And also, I think it’s interesting to have this contradiction, this paradox, to say these kinds of things, in that way, because it might be more flirtatious, too. She gains a certain pride by [what happened]. Obviously it was something, if you have a serial killer for a father, having killed I don’t know how many little children. It’s a tragedy that initiated the beginning of your life. So, needless to underline it. It’s more fun to do it like this. But again, it’s not something that we ever discussed with Paul. And when I say “pas mal” [not bad] at the end, that’s, I made it up, you know. It was not even in the script.
GALLOWAY Oh, wow, you improvised it? And it’s a great moment.
HUPPERT Well, it’s a very short moment. It’s only one second.
GALLOWAY Paul shot this entire film using two cameras.
HUPPERT Yeah, absolutely, that’s his way of doing.
GALLOWAY Do you like that?
HUPPERT It doesn’t bother me. I’ve done that before on a previous film, La Séparation. The Separation was a very good film that I did with a French filmmaker called Christian Vincent. And on each scene, most of the time when we were facing each other, my partner Daniel Auteuil, it would be two cameras filming the scene at the same time. In the way Paul Verhoeven does it, it’s completely different. It’s two cameras, but slightly different.
GALLOWAY They’re in the same place.
HUPPERT Right, exactly, with two slightly different angles. No, it didn’t bother me. It could have, actually, because it’s like having two eyes looking at you. But it didn’t. No, because also I knew that it was a different angle, and it was never the same frame. Not the same lens, obviously. Not only the same angle but at the same length.
GALLOWAY Are you worried about how this film might be perceived in America? When it debuted in Cannes, people were talking about it as a rape comedy, and there were shock waves here. There is a level of puritanism in America you might not find in France.
HUPPERT I have to say, so far, which is four days, it’s not positive or negative. Let’s say, most of the time, people seem to get the film where it is. And I think personally, the rape comedy is absolutely irrelevant, because it can’t be a rape comedy, you know? To me there is an integrity to the film. I find an integrity. I’m sure about that. I mean, I speak for myself, of course, but, it’s my strong belief that there is an integrity. And so there is nothing to do with comedy. It’s not [a comedy] because there’s this huge sense of irony; irony doesn’t mean that a film is comic. It’s two different topics. People get the film in its integrity, in its complexity, in its disturbance. I’m not denying that — I’m far from denying how much Verhoeven is on the razor’s edge. And certain people won’t get the movie. But, that’s the risk.
GALLOWAY Good. Let’s turn to audience questions.
QUESTION Out of all the films that you’ve done, is there one in particular that you would like to be remembered by?
HUPPERT Not one in particular, I have to say. I think that we went over some really important films, for me in my life. Not only for the film itself but for the experiences that I was able to go through. Like Heaven’s Gate, for example. But I couldn’t take one film in particular out of the 80 or 90 films I did — not 100, like I read most of the time, less, much less I think. Because they are an ensemble in a way. So, there is a thread between all these films, there was a connection. Which might be me, of course! I was able through all these films to make very passionate statements, in a way. And for me it was almost like I was reading books. So it’s nice.
GALLOWAY You know, we all think of directors as auteurs. But you can say the same about some actors. This is a body of work that does speak a lot about you. You also have a new movie coming out in December, Things to Come (L’Avenir).
HUPPERT Things to Come, which is a wonderful film —
GALLOWAY — about a woman whose husband suddenly tells her he’s leaving her. When you do two films that different, do you choose to do two films that are that different, or is it difficult for you?
HUPPERT No, it’s not difficult, it’s very easy. On the contrary, I would say. Because both films are great roles, great directors. Things to Come is due in this country on Dec. 2. It’s a really a great film in my opinion. She is a great director, Mia Hansen-Love. She’s really, really, highly talented, she’s very young. And the role was just complete and really extraordinary. And I guess a little bit unpredictable in the sense that this woman goes through a series of setbacks. Her husband is leaving her, her mother is … you know, she’s in a moment in her life when everything seems to break down, even her professional life. And it’s all about how she re-collects herself. Also, she’s a philosophy teacher, which might help her in the acceptance of what happens to her. But the movie is really very, very sensitive, sometimes very funny, too. And so it’s just a mere draw, to do movies like this, with such a central character, where you can really be almost like pointillist, doing it little touch by little touch. It’s easy, it’s wonderful. I have nothing to say more, really.
QUESTION You’ve done a few movies with your daughter [actress Lolita Chammah]. How was that experience?
HUPPERT Yes, I did two movies — I mean, the second movie I did with my daughter, it’s only a participation. They asked me to be her mother, and so I agreed to be her. But in the previous one, yes, I’m her mother already. And it’s a wonderful film that we did together with a friend, a young French director called Marc Fitoussi, and the film is called Copacabana. It’s about a relationship between a crazy mother, with a classical daughter. I mean classical in the sense that she wants to get married, she wants to have a very guarded life, and the mother is very crazy, but the movie is really, really sensitive. And my daughter, she is just wonderful. I have nothing else to say.
GALLOWAY And you’re not prejudiced in any way?
HUPPERT In any way! (Laughs) She is very pretty, and she’s great. And I mean it, she’s a great actress.
GALLOWAY Next question, please. Is this our last question? Well, great.
QUESTION You were on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and then you became the president in 2009. What were those experiences like?
HUPPERT Yes, I was twice a jury member. I was a jury member first with Dirk Bogarde, speaking of Dirk Bogarde. Stanley Donen also was there as a jury member. And he offered me an umbrella. Which I still have. That was nice.
GALLOWAY As a joke, or for real because it was raining?
GALLOWAY Oh. (Laughs)
HUPPERT It was very funny. And a great man. And then, more recently, I was head of a jury. Initially, I thought I was going to be very intimidated. I had great jury members around me, like the great Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Celan; the great Korean director, Lee Chang-dong; I mean, great people. James Gray, too, who was there — a wonderful bunch of people. It was just an extraordinary experience. You are completely isolated, because you’re guarded as a phalanx. And nobody should talk to you, and so you get very little influence from anybody. It was all wonderful. It’s a privileged way of seeing movies. The discussions were really high-level. It was great. I would do it again, right away.
GALLOWAY Which film won the award?
HUPPERT The White Ribbon. Michael Haneke. Unanimously — less one vote. It wasn’t mine, as you can imagine.
GALLOWAY But you keep all that secret? You’re not allowed to tell.
HUPPERT Well, sometimes over the years, you know, things come to surface. I’ll never say anything, OK?
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