A New Retrospective Captures Isabelle Huppert’s Illustrious Career

Looking back on the French actress’s greatest hits with Huppert herself.

A still from Madame Bovary with Isabelle Hupert
Isabelle Huppert in a still from ‘Madame Bovary.’ Courtesy of Film Forum.

Like all the greats, Isabelle Huppert has a way of concentrating your focus on-screen. And in a new 29-film retrospective at the Film Forum movie theater in New York City—from her early appearance in The Lacemaker to Loulou, Madame Bovary, The Piano Teacher and beyond—the cool fire of Huppert’s performances is on display. Sometimes, the energy and tension courses just below the surface—no words required—and at other moments, she springs into action, even violence, with a kinetic physical abandon (which, in some recent re-viewings, reminded me of headlong performers from the silent screen).

I reached Huppert via Zoom in Tokyo, where she is playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. She was eager to discuss her roles across many close collaborations with directors, including Claude Chabrol, Diane Kurys, Mia Hansen-Løve, Jean-Luc Godard, and Paul Verhoeven. (For those who track the ever-sharply dressed Huppert: she wore a blue cap-sleeve, tweed, plaid outfit—Japanese, unbranded, I was told.)

We talked about how she creates her characters with unvarnished truth, the importance of humor—but not necessarily smiling—and how to deal with a difficult director.

Did you just finish a performance?

It’s midnight in Tokyo, but here, it’s very special because most of my performances are at 1 p.m. It’s packed and crowded, but at three o’clock, it’s finished. Don’t ask me why!

The retrospective includes a breakthrough film, The Lacemaker, where you play a demure hair salon worker who falls for a doctoral student. How significant was that role for you?

It was one of those roles that makes you a little visible. For the very young actress that I was, usually you have roles relying more on youth, or seduction, or these kinds of topics. This was very dramatic, and it was a wonderful entry. I had things before, but that was certainly the most significant.

Isabelle Huppert in a still from The Lacemaker.

Courtesy of Film Forum

She wants to have a traditional life, and she ends up in a very dark place. There’s such a nuanced physicality in your performance, and that great dinner scene with his parents, where she gets something caught in her throat—

Yes! It’s so embarrassing. Even now, I am sometimes afraid it’s going to happen: you are at one of those beautiful dinner parties, very, very official, and then [makes a choking noise]. It’s funny, but the scene is very dramatic and very embarrassing. There is no great, dramatic thing without, at some point, a certain distance through humor. It’s embarrassing for her, but it’s also a very negative perception of who they are, because they are so contemptuous.

You worked with Claude Chabrol on seven features, starting with Violette Nozière. What helped create that bond?

The thing we had in common was that Chabrol was never a romantic director. He was not sentimental. He was just watching things the way they were, in their truth. And when I think to myself, well, it’s very banal to say that. But when you dig a little, it’s not so banal. Because for so many people, to make movies is to idealize situations, it’s idealized characters. It’s to make people always nice, always smiling. I don’t like smiling people on screen, you know. It tires me—very, very quickly.

Isabelle Huppert in a still from Violette Nozière.

Courtesy of Film Forum

I think in every situation, there is always room for a little aloofness—for me, as a spectator and as an actress. I act exactly the way I want, as a spectator, to see things on the screen. I like when, in any situation, there is room for openness and also a little step backwards for something [more detached]. Chabrol was this kind of director, and he had a vision of mankind. It was a very political view of the relationship between the individual and society.

But we never had such discussions. We liked to laugh, and Chabrol had an immense education in music, literature, history. But it’s not a theory we would develop. It was implied, in a way. He knew that with me, well, I wasn’t going to smile too much.

The idea rings true: with your characters who have violent urges, I wondered, is it really something about them, or are they reflecting the world back?

Yeah, of course! It’s both, certainly. Most of the time, I don’t think a lot about what I’ll be doing. There is something in the components of a film that inspires and brings you to a certain kind of being, a certain kind of acting. Let's take Mia Hansen-Love, with whom I did Things to Come. She intervened sometimes, but with such a subtlety, with tiny little details. So I never took it like she was trying to change what I was doing. It was more about understanding what I was doing and going even further.

With Godard’s recent passing, I have to ask about your experience on Every Man for Himself and Passion.

He liked to call Every Man for Himself his “second first film.” Passion was more difficult—but more difficult for him. It's a little bit like Maurice Pialat, who could have so many great conflicts with actors, but it was more against himself. And once you understand this with a director, you put yourself on the side, and you wait like a little cloud in the sky. Pialat could be really mean with some people, so maybe I was spared.

Isabelle Huppert in a still from Every Man for Himself.

Courtesy of Film Forum

The Ceremony is another fine Chabrol. I wondered if Michael Haneke saw it before asking you about The Piano Teacher.

Next time I see him I will ask him! He can only have liked it, I think. It's certainly one of Chabrol’s greatest films, because it's so political, it's so violent, and also, in a way, so human.

Your character, Jeanne, a rebellious postmaster, has a particular style. How does costuming contribute to your performance of a character?

Oh, costumes are so important in the preparation, because it says so much about the character. It's really a time you have to share with the costume designer, especially this kind of a character, who is obviously far from what I am. You have to think whether you have high heels, for example, or flat shoes. Chantal Akerman said that you find characters in your shoes. I think it's very true. On The Piano Teacher, I have flat shoes, and she has a flat-shoe way of walking. In other films, where I have high heels, it gives you a certain poise and attitude. These concrete details are very, very important.

Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.

Courtesy of Film Forum

Diane Kurys’s Entre Nous is another rarely screened title. What’s its significance for you?

I’m so happy it's part of the retrospective. Diane became my close friend. She's a wonderful director, and it’s really interesting because at the time she did it, certain things are not named in the film: this true relationship between these two women is never really spoken out loud. She makes the time of the film, the mid ’50s, so believable, so accurate. It’s a wonderful film.

And one more film, more recent: Elle is incredible for taking so many risks. You have to trust a director to take that on!

Well, when I heard you saying the word “risk,” I just immediately thought: you take a risk because you don't know that it's risky! You do it with a total unawareness. And even if you knew it was risky, it's certainly less risky than walking in the street and getting run over by a car. Like Hitchcock said, “It's only a movie.” Maybe it’s especially me, because sometimes I don't really think about that: I read [the script] and think, that’s interesting! And then eventually... oh my god. It's like when I did The Piano Teacher... Sometimes you don't know exactly. For Elle, the good destiny of the film immediately told us that, yes, it was risky—but the risk was worth it.