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French screen icon Isabelle Huppert and rising Japanese arthouse star Ryusuke Hamaguchi sat down together at the Tokyo International Film Festival Sunday for a nuanced discussion of the art of screen acting. The session, which was held physically for festival attendees and broadcast simultaneously over Zoom, is part of the Tokyo festival’s new Asian Lounge panel discussion series, which was created in 2020 by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda to draw wider A-list international filmmaker participation into the long-running Japanese event.
Kore-eda was on hand to introduce the two featured speakers, saying, ““It was my idea to bring these two together; I thought it would be a wonderful pairing.” He also thanked Huppert for traveling from Europe to participate in the festival, where she is also serving as chair of the competition jury, in light of the mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine her trip entailed due to Japan’s ongoing pandemic policies.
With over 100 film credits to her name, two Cannes best actress wins and an Academy Award nomination, Huppert requires little introduction. She has collaborated with many of the great international filmmakers of her generation, including Jean Luc-Godard, Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke, Hong Sang-soo, Paul Verhoeven, Andrzej Wajda, David O. Russell and over a dozen others.
From his part, Hamaguchi has been riding high on the international festival circuit of late. He co-wrote Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s period thriller Wife of a Spy, which won the best director award at the 2020 Venice Film Festival; and his 2021 omnibus feature Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which tells three distinct stories about contemporary Japanese women, was a hit at the Berlinale, winning the Silver Bear jury prize. This past summer he then won the best screenplay prize at Cannes for Drive My Car, his feature adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story.
Kore-eda was full of praise for Hamaguchi in his introduction, noting that he had seen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy just the night before. “It made me jealous as a filmmaker — you’ve made such a wonderful film,” he said.
Huppert and Hamaguchi began the discussion by sharing a few words about one another’s work. Huppert said she had seen all of the director’s films that have screened in France and that she is a big admirer of his work, particularly his direction of actresses. “He understands what happens in between those moments when people are able to express themselves in words or when they are instead silent — and in between is what is most important.”
Hamaguchi replied that he felt as if his “brain were melting” to be sharing the stage with the actress. “When you act, Ms. Huppert, your expressions are very nuanced. Sometimes there’s an explosion of emotion, but there’s a certain stillness that runs through the films that you appear in. You harbor the ability to explode at any minute, which is a remarkable achievement.
“I think it has to do with how much you trust the film; how much you believe in it,” Huppert replied. “You spoke about being active and being passive, and depending on the film, we’re manipulated to move in front of the camera because of the film itself. We have to remember that film and psychological analysis were developed at the same time — and they’re both very powerful.”
Hamaguchi agreed: “I think cameras also capture the subconscious world. They’re very powerful. The camera will search inside our soul. If there’s too much facial expression, it’s maybe because an actor is too anxious. The camera picks up all the emotions and the movements, and it may make a performance artificial.”
Huppert marveled at the acting in Hamaguchi’s breakthrough feature Happy Hour (2015), which ran five hours long and won plaudits for its beguiling dialog and finely observed set pieces. “In such films as Happy Hour, you can see what the actor thinks,” she said. “One of the actresses, who’s always looking down, you can sense exactly what she’s thinking. It’s quite a vocal kind of acting.”
“I read somewhere that they were amateurs, is that true?” she added, to which Hamaguchi said yes. “That’s extraordinary,” Huppert went on. “It’s an amazing thing to see amateurs act in such a professional way — it feels like we professionals should just stop. Those women didn’t feel like actors. That type of innocence is something we professionals always want to recapture.”
When Hamaguchi asked her about her own methods, Huppert said she has “never felt any kind of trepidation before the camera,” explaining, “I’m very detached from the process. In that moment, I don’t have to think about anything in order to act the role.”
“Since film is one language, the director talks through the actors through the camera position,” she elaborated, “and the actor is very aware of this. If the camera’s far away, the body’s expression matters. If it’s close, it’s the eyes that matter. There are certain times when I’m not sure what the director’s trying to achieve, but the camera position provides the answer.”
Hamaguchi said his own former film teacher, the great Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, always told him that the essence of filmmaking is simply deciding where to place the camera, and when to begin and stop recording. “As I work with my own actors,” he added, “I realize that film is made of this intricate dialogue between the actor and the camera.”
Hamaguchi later asked about Huppert’s collaboration with South Korean auteur Hong Sang-too on the film In Another Country (2012). “There’s a kind of legend that when an actor works with him, you get the script in the morning and there’s a kind of freedom in his style of working.”
“For me, working with him was the most passionate experience I’ve had in my entire career,” Huppert replied. “The way he directs and writes his dialogue, it’s 1,000 percent cinema. It’s a unique approach he takes, where he first thinks about the location of the scenes. The people and places stir his imagination, like a child drawing a house and putting people in it. Then he creates a rough story, invites the cast there, and develops it. So we’re able to use our imaginations. He did write a lot of dialogue for us, and we got it the day before the shoot. There were allowances for improvisation, but he was constantly true to the script, and he took a lot of takes. I think the strength of his cinema comes from the immersion in the process. It was an experience where I truly felt the power of cinema.”
Huppert then returned to the naturalism of Hamaguchi’s films.”How do you capture that on camera? Do you tell your actors the camera’s on? I know the camera was there because there’s a film, but where did you put it?”
He replied: “Improvisation can be dangerous, because it can go into a totally different direction than what you intended. I’ve tried it, but haven’t been able to incorporate it exactly the way I want. Once you have the camera rolling, wonderful things don’t always happen. I often feel like it would be much better without the camera, but of course you need it to capture the film. We’re basically trying to do the impossible. We know this, and that makes us more relaxed. If I accept that, I can achieve a level that’s amazing and unexpected. It doesn’t happen every time and I always wonder how I can capture that naturalness.”
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