Isabelle Huppert, the Greatest Actress Alive, on Keeping Audiences Guessing
The French screen legend opens up to Marlow Stern about her new drug-dealing film ‘Mama Weed,’ the 20th anniversary of ‘The Piano Teacher,’ and her icy persona.
In November of 2020, The New York Times published a story that activated the fingers of Film Twitter. The list, titled “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far),” comprised critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s picks of “the performers who have outshone all others on the big screen in the last 20 years.”
Though cineastes took issue with a number of puzzling omissions, such as Meryl Streep, few could argue with the screen titan sitting at No. 2 on the list: Isabelle Huppert. “Huppert is known for embracing extremes, though I see this as an interest in the fullness of existence, including the disgusting and the taboo,” Dargis wrote, adding, “I love that she forces me to look even when I don’t want to.”
As Maria Vial, a French coffee supplier trapped in an African country torn apart by civil war in Claire Denis’ White Material, she is a paragon of pertinacity, the blinking eye at the center of a tornado. Michèle Leblanc, of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, toys with the audience via subverting their expectations for how a rape victim “should” act. And her Erika Kohut, polestar of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, enthralls—a tormented masochist teaching us hard lessons about women’s power and fragility. One of the all-time great cinema performances, to be sure.
“It’s always more interesting to deal with shadings, angles, and ambiguity, because then you deal with something that really speaks to people,” Huppert tells me. And she loves nothing more than holding her audience captive with her volatility; so much so that she often injects a bit of humor, her version of a knowing wink. “Even in The Piano Teacher, and especially in Elle, there was always this ironical distance between what I said—or a sense of observing situations and people with a sense of mockery,” she reveals.
And at 68, Huppert is still at the height of her powers—simultaneously performing in a stripped-down version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Festival d’Avignon, stealing the show (Vogue’s words) with a funereal red carpet ensemble at Cannes, and promoting Mama Weed, a new film that sees her dip into genre territory as an Arabic translator for the Paris police who begins moonlighting as a glamorous hash distributor in order to pay the bills. Huppert, who learned to speak conversational Arabic for the picture, keeps the gonzo affair from sliding off its axis through her magnetism and force of will.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Daily Beast, a happily vaccinated Huppert opens up about her new film and extraordinary career.
You looked absolutely stunning at Cannes. What was it like, after a year-plus of not attending big, glitzy events like that, to experience Cannes this year?
That’s a good question. The atmosphere was very relaxed, maybe? Considering what we went through the past year, I felt everyone was a bit more relaxed. When you’ve been through something so bizarre and threatening and tragic for many, many people, everybody was relieved and ready to have a good time.
Perhaps that’s why it seemed like there were many more lengthy standing ovations this year than in years past.
Yes, you’re right! People were not only applauding the film but applauding how we were all back together. Quite true.
I read about these disgusting-sounding COVID spit tests that they were administering to Cannes attendees. Did you have to spit into a tube?
Well, I am vaccinated, so no, I did not have to do this experience. No.
Before we get to your new film Mama Weed, I’m curious how you passed the time during the pandemic. Did you learn anything new about yourself?
Nothing that I didn’t know! [Laughs] I was privileged—I was not precarious, I was not sick—so given the situation, I took it as good as possible. I was doing The Glass Menagerie onstage in Paris when the first lockdown happened. We only performed six times, and then we had to stop. I had an interesting experience, being obliged to face yourself without the usual obligations, as the frame of your life was completely shattered. It was an existential experience, in a way. For some people, it was very, very tragic, so I do say this with a lot of precaution.
It was. With Mama Weed, it’s fascinating because it reminds me of genre films of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s an antihero role—a cop who starts moonlighting as a hash distributor—that back then would have surely been played by a man.
It’s interesting that you say it would have historically “been played by a man,” because she does find herself in a typically “man situation” which requires a lot of physical courage—and I’m not saying women do not have courage—for such a small woman to go through this. She has to carry these loads of shit, and perhaps unconsciously, this is what attracted me to the role. I heard the writer [Hannelore Cayre] on the radio, went to buy the book, and found it to be very cinematic. And within this fiction, I found it to be a nice portrait of an unsettled woman who never really finds her place.
It also exposes the ridiculousness of the police force going after people so aggressively for hash, because you ultimately think, “What crime is Mama Weed really committing?”
She’s kind of a female Robin Hood, in a way.
Yes. And there’s a line in the film where she’s speaking to her police chief-lover, and says something to the effect of, “We’re ruining people’s lives for a little bit of hash.” There does seem to be a message here about how the police are unfairly targeting these minority communities over harmless drugs like hash.
That’s true. And there’s a moment in the film where she tells her daughter, “He’s really a policeman. How can I even consider sharing my life with a policeman? It’s too far from my philosophy.” But in the end, the last scene… is really beautiful.
Over in America, a lot more people are smoking weed given that it’s legal in much of the country. Do you smoke weed yourself?
Um… no. I did when I was a lot younger, but no. I don’t like it, so… not for me.
You exploded on the scene in the ’70s. I can’t imagine what that experience was like, becoming a star in ’70s Paris. I imagine the parties were much better back then.
[Laughs] I partied at school when I was still in my studies, but when I became a young actress, no, that was behind me, this kind of “party.” I was more focused on my work.
You’ve always struck me as someone who’s fiercely dedicated to their craft, and who works very consistently. How have you managed to balance your personal and professional lives given that level of commitment?
I think when you are an actor or an actress, yes, it requires a lot of energy, but frankly, it’s not the biggest part of my life. I spend very few hours doing it. It requires a lot more energy and perseverance to be a director, for example, or many other occupations. Acting is easy for me, I have to say. It’s very easy. It does not require a lot of questioning or anguish. It’s very simple—especially movie acting. Stage acting is a little bit different, because you go through stage fright and it’s a more physical and nervous experience, at least for the first few times. For me, I never saw acting as a burden. It’s all about working with good people and creating conditions of trust, because that gives you comfort. I don’t see it as a challenge. I see it as a source of great pleasure.
Even though you reached such acting heights in your youth, it seems like in the last 20 years you’ve really done some of your finest work. The Piano Teacher turns 20 this year. White Material. Elle. So many incredible performances.
Oh, don’t speak about ages. I don’t want to hear that! [Laughs] I don’t want to have a conversation about ages. I think it’s pointless. Let’s move in another direction. The roles I played 20 years ago I could easily do now, so it has nothing to do with ages.
I wanted to talk about The Piano Teacher, because I think that is one of the all-time great movie performances. And the way it challenges traditional gender power dynamics was fascinating, and I think ahead of its time.
It’s about control.
Yes. This woman wants her sexual needs fulfilled, and to maintain power within their sexual dynamic, and the man almost short-circuits because he can’t handle giving control over to a woman.
As it is in Elle, as in The Piano Teacher, once the movie’s done and I hear all the comments, I can make a theory out of it. But when you decide to do a film, or when you do it, it’s pure intuition and feeling. You don’t think about making a theory of it or elaborating on any theoretical content or statement. But of course, it’s exactly what you said. I think the reason I did it so easily, without even questioning myself, was that I felt completely protected by Michael Haneke and Paul Verhoeven. The woman wished to control her life, and I felt protected by this, because as an actress, I was also in control of myself. There was no danger to me of being damaged, or diminished, or any negative feelings. I felt completely safe, and that’s why I did it. Only after it was done did I realize how lucky I was, or how intuitive I was.
In the case of The Piano Teacher, she wants to take control sexually, but then she loses because she falls in love with him. She is hurt because she was touched by him. So, I’ve always considered it a difficult love story.
Screen actresses of the 1940s and 1950s used to be shot in this angelic light, and weren’t often depicted as messy, real people. I’ve always been impressed by how deeply you explore the interior lives of complicated women onscreen. Has that been a mission of yours?
“Mission” is not the right word. I have no mission, no message. As my friend Michael Haneke says, “If you want to send messages, you have the post office for that.” This is what I like about moviemaking: it deals with something to do with your unconscious versus a conscious theoretical or intellectual statement. It deals with the unsaid, or the invisible, and projects that onscreen. Even when I did The Piano Teacher or I did Elle, I never said, “I’m going to make this feminist statement.” It’s more vague than this, and not formulated as a voluntary thought about the film. Only when the film is done can you say what you say.
I understand you own a pair of repertory cinemas in Paris that one of your children programs. And during the pandemic, it seems people’s viewing habits were disrupted, with many people streaming things from home. I worry that we’re precariously close to a scenario where films like The Piano Teacher are not playing in the cinema.
You need people to be worried, because you want to wake people up and shake them. But me, I’m not worried. I’m optimistic and confident that people will always go to the theaters and see movies. But I think it’s healthy to warn people, “Hey, be careful—it might disappear.” I think you need both. You need optimistic people like me and pessimistic people like you who are raising the question and saying, “Beware. It might happen.” Now people are watching movies on their phones, or watching movies on Netflix, but I’m optimistic.
In America, superhero films dominate the box office and are pushing independent films out of cinemas. Martin Scorsese recently compared superhero films to “amusement parks.” What do you think of them? And would you ever appear in one?
Well, if it has some cinematic substance. I’m not familiar with superhero movies, I have to say, so I’m reluctant to speak about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a superhero film in my life. But if the role is substantial, yeah, it could be interesting. I have no real opinion about it.
Your Call My Agent cameo was hilarious. In that episode, they say of you, “She has the stamina of a Nepalese Sherpa.”
“The stamina of a Nepalese Sherpa.”
[Laughs] Ah, d’accord. Really? Oh my god! I have vertigo, so no chance I go on top of [a mountain].
How do you remain so dedicated to your craft after all these years of acting?
Sometimes I wonder! [Laughs] It’s like a mantra that I hear about myself all the time—that I’m super occupied—and it’s not so true, actually. Of course, 10 Percent is a slightly exaggerated version of my life and myself, so it’s a gimmick. We had great pleasure exaggerating this side of myself. But I like what I do. It’s a great privilege. It’s a gift. When I make movies, I don’t think too much about reality. It’s something that I don’t like to question too much in myself. Do I do it to escape something? Do I do it just because I love it? I don’t know the official reasons, because there is always something hidden behind it, and I’m not sure if I want the answers.
There’s the audience’s perception of you and reality. You recently wrote in The Times, “I really don’t know why people think I’m scary. This image of being cold and aloof, that makes my close friends laugh. Because I’m the contrary of an intimidating person.”
Of course! I think so. I did this masterclass in Cannes two days ago and someone asked who I was intimidated by. I said “no one,” because I’m not attracted to this feeling. I would not like to know that I’m intimidating anyone—it’s not something that interests me. Admiration or respect, but not intimidation. It’s also a question of power. If you intimidate someone, you have power over them, and I’m not interested in these relationships between people. But “cold” and “aloof” or whatever, the image of an actress is always pure fiction. It’s never true. It’s an abstract construction that probably comes from the role, so it’s far from me. But… it may be a little true, also.
Was The Piano Teacher the toughest role you’ve ever performed? I read that Michael Haneke shot the final scene where you stab yourself 50 times.
48. No, it wasn’t difficult. Michael Haneke is the master of precision and is more interested in the precision of gestures. For example, when I was pulling Annie Girardot’s hair, we did that over and over again—poor Annie!—because he wanted the gesture to be real. He wants things to be real, so it requires time. But the stabbing, yes, it was 48 times. It took us until three o’clock in the morning. But I was following him, which is not difficult. I knew what he wanted. I’m not sure which take he finally chose. Maybe the first one!
You are, in my opinion, the greatest living actress. And some of your performances are unparalleled—particularly The Piano Teacher. But you were not nominated for an Academy Award for that film, which I consider a crime.
There was a mix-up at the time… I don’t want to go back to this, because it was a little bit painful, but what was supposed to be done so that the movie could be eligible [for the Academy Awards] wasn’t done at the time. Don’t ask me why. It’s done. I don’t want to point out if it was anyone’s responsibility, but in the end, the movie was not eligible. So, we’ll never know.
Right before the pandemic, you conducted an interview with The Guardian. In the piece, the journalist wrote about how they asked you a number of questions about the #MeToo movement, and that you were evasive and walked out.
[Laughs] Yes. I have nothing negative to say. Who can complain about women’s voices being heard about equality for women? I think it was a misunderstanding with this young woman. It’s brought so many things to the surface that were unsaid, it’s just that I’ve never personally been through these difficult [sexual misconduct] situations, so I can’t make up situations that I’ve never been through. But I do know what it means as far as inequality in salaries and things like this, and I think that dealing with this in the movie business is good for women in general, in the world. I think it really changed people’s mentalities and is very, very fortunate. Undoubtedly. That’s a good conclusion, hopefully. How can you expect me not to be completely in favor of this? Anyway, that’s a different story.
I did want to ask you one more question about this, because it’s something that was brought up in The Guardian story and that I’ve written about, but how do you feel about France’s embrace of director Roman Polanski? We know what he did in America, and he’s a fugitive who escaped to France. When he was recently awarded the César for Best Director, Adèle Haenel and others walked out of the ceremony in protest.
I think that what happened at the Césars was that people recognized his film, and that was fair. People voted for him, and that’s it. What can you say? It was fair that he received the César because people voted for him, and that meant that they loved the film. And that’s all.
The first film I ever saw you in, when I was a kid, was Heaven’s Gate. My father was—and remains—a big fan of the film, and he told me, “This movie was very mistreated.” What was that experience like for you? It was your first big American production, and the press tore it to shreds.
It was an exceptional event in my lifetime. When we did it, Michael Cimino was at the height of his artistic powers—with The Deer Hunter—and he was an inspired director. I was supposed to be there for two months and I ended up staying for six months, in Montana. The whole trip was phenomenal, and of course, the reception of the film was the reverse. I think that now, it is obviously for everybody that the film is really a masterpiece—or at least a completely unusual object that is being recognized again. But I think that in a way, Michael Cimino never really made it back from that wound. Michael fought to have me in that film, because nobody wanted me in that film, so my heart will always be for Michael.
I’m half-Jewish, and in preparing for this interview I learned an interesting fact about you that I hadn’t known before—that your father is Jewish but had to hide the fact that he was during World War II.
Who said that?
I believe I read it in a French publication.
Well, he was not the only one to be obliged to hide that he was Jewish during World War II, was he? That was the condition of being Jewish during World War II.
It’s something that I found quite interesting. You often play women in films—like Mama Weed or especially Elle—that are not only haunted by their pasts, but by the sins of the father.
Oui. You know what? Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if my father saw The Piano Teacher. He was there in Cannes when I received my prize [for Best Actress] and was very proud, but I don’t remember if he saw the film. But… I don’t know! Whatever you write, whatever you play, whatever you project on screen, you go where the role goes. You know what? I will think more about it. Chantal Akerman—I think it was her—once told me, “Being an actress is dealing with your father, and being a director is dealing with your mother.” Whatever it is, I think it’s interesting.