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Isabelle Huppert Lives from Scene to Scene

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This is not to say that Huppert does not prepare before taking on a role, only that the most important aspects of her preparation lie in the decisions about what clothes she will wear, or how her hair and makeup will be done. For that morning’s scene, her light-auburn hair had been artfully curled and tousled by her longtime hairdresser, Frédéric Souquet. (“It’s my hair, only maybe a little bit better,” she told me.) Her dewy makeup was by Thi-Loan Nguyen, who has worked with Huppert regularly since the mid-nineties. With practical details like these taken care of, “then there is a kind of opening,” Huppert explained. “Because that’s what movies are about, you know—to capture the present time. So you have to be as naked as possible, to absorb this immediacy.”

The next section of the museum was a series of small rooms titled the “Gallery of Civilisations,” which examined past cultures through the prism of their manufacture and use of wine. One room was designed to evoke the triclinia of Boscoreale, which were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. “Pompeii—I did a movie in Pompeii, ‘Entre Nous,’ with Diane Kurys,” Huppert recalled. A gallery about the consumption of wine in early modern Europe featured a Vermeerish print showing a young woman drinking from a glass; Huppert granted the reproduction all the attention she might have given a masterwork in the Louvre. As it happens, her film career first took off when, in 1977, she starred in a movie named for a Vermeer painting, “The Lacemaker,” playing an eighteen-year-old shop assistant who enters a relationship with a more sophisticated student of literature.

Roger Ebert wrote of “The Lacemaker” that Huppert’s most remarkable skill was “the very difficult task of projecting the inner feelings of a character whose whole personality is based on the concealment of feeling.” The observation is one that has been repeated by others throughout her career, both in praise of Huppert—Chabrol once said of her that “she has this extraordinary gift of expressing things without changing her face”—and to her detriment. Pauline Kael, in a disparaging review of Huppert’s performance as an affectless prostitute in Godard’s “Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie),” in 1980, wrote that “she just gives you a little glimmer of something that is so small and wan no camera yet invented could turn it into an emotion.” Huppert’s famed blankness is a carefully considered artistic choice. “I really think that to be, to act, in a movie is more about withdrawing than adding,” she told me. “When you look at people in life, they do very little. Most of the time you feel, because you are acting, that you have to do a little bit more. But in fact you have to do a little bit less, in order to be more close to reality.”

Huppert’s latest movie, “La Syndicaliste,” released in the U.S. this past weekend, is based on the true story of Maureen Kearney, a union leader in France’s nuclear-energy sector who was accused of faking her own violent sexual assault after fighting to draw attention to industry skulduggery. (Kearney was sentenced and later cleared of all charges of fabrication). One of Huppert’s signature blank-face moments comes at a midpoint in the film, when Kearney, seated at a desk in a police station, is informed that rather than being considered a victim of a crime—she is discovered by her cleaning lady having been bound to a chair, hooded and gagged, with a knife inserted handle first into her vagina—she is under suspicion of having staged it herself. “I immediately saw the potential of the role, in the sense that it was really interesting to play the double face of the character: the face of those who believe her, and the face of those who do not believe,” Huppert said. True to form, as she prepared, she made no attempt to meet the real Kearney, focussing instead on aesthetics. In the film, Huppert wears a blond wig in a chignon; her bright-red lipstick is a form of armor, and she dresses in power suits and high heels. (Although Huppert never stops looking like herself, the resemblance is remarkable.) “She has this Hitchcockian blond hair—very cinematic,” Huppert said. “And she is dressed up in a way you do not expect a syndicaliste to be dressed up. You feel like sometimes, in a clumsy way, she wants to resemble other people—like she’s putting on a uniform of someone she is not.”

What drew Huppert to the project, she went on, was the same urge that attends the best work that comes her way: “When you can build up your own little story within the official script. The great roles, and the great films, are where you can hide yourself in this secret place.” The audience of “La Syndicaliste” is also induced to wonder whether Kearney’s assault is real or an elaborate setup. The ambiguity of the situation is enhanced by Huppert having been cast in the role, given her history of playing individuals who have either on some level invited sexual violence, in the case of “The Piano Teacher,” or gone on after a sexual violation to explore its enactment in a consensual arrangement, as in “Elle.” An investigator’s irritated observation that Kearney “doesn’t act like a rape victim” might just as easily have applied to other Huppert characters.

Huppert did not think about the parallels in advance. “It really didn’t occur to me that I had done something similar before,” she said. “Actors don’t have all these images in mind. We don’t carry all of this. We are not spectators of our own work.” The darkness that may come with a particular role—the abuse, or the violence, or the self-destructive sexual desire—doesn’t linger after the camera has finished rolling, she explained. “Being an actor is what most people say they feel when they are being attacked: dissociation,” she told me. “It’s neither bad nor good—you are like an instrument when you do it, and it does not really affect you.” She can dissociate on set all day, and then go home for dinner and be totally fine? “Of course, because it’s nice to do it,” she said. “Even the worst thing, it’s nice.”

Over the years, Huppert has worked with several directors repeatedly: she made seven films with Chabrol, and four with Haneke. Lately, one of her most frequent collaborators has been the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, with whom she first worked on “In Another Country,” in 2012, playing three different French women, all named Anne, who find themselves in domestic propinquity to the inhabitants of a seaside town in Korea. This summer, she made her third film with Hong. Hours before she got on the plane to Seoul, she’d gone shopping for the outfit she would wear in character; she showed me an image on her cell phone of herself in a light floral dress and a big straw hat. “He always has me play the same kind of character—like, a little clown, discovering the country,” she said. Huppert enjoys Hong’s approach, she explained, “because there is no story and there is no character—there is just the reaction to whom you are talking to, and to what you learned to say two hours ago, and that’s it.” His shoots are very abbreviated: the first film took nine days, the second one six days. The most recent film was long: “It was thirteen days, which is a lot for him.” She went on, “There is no one like him—he is very special. He is his own producer—no script, no team, nothing. But it’s a certain idea of cinema. It says how cinema can be small and big.”

The compression of her work with Hong is almost singular, but one gets the sense, speaking to Huppert, that she would like always to work that way—to be thrown into a new project without too much thinking it over in advance. From scene to scene within a movie, she explained, she does not know where her instincts and skills will take her. “Most of the time, what you do is completely unexpected, and that’s what’s really exciting about it,” she told me. “You just do it as you do it.” (More than once, this has made her the highlight of an otherwise middling film; as Manohla Dargis wrote of “La Syndicaliste,” in the Times, “Sometimes the best reason to watch a movie is because Isabelle Huppert is in it.”) Huppert does not reflect upon her long back catalogue, and being invited to reckon with the fact that she has been around long enough to make as many movies as she has produces in her a visceral reaction. “I don’t even want to think about it—it’s horrible,” she told me. “Since I was born, I was already regretting the day before. Oh, my God! The most vivid and oldest memories of my consciousness are: I’m already two years old, and I wish I could be one year old.” She added, “I think that doing what I do is also about the present moment. It’s the most exhilarating thing, being always in the present—that is what making movies is about. So I think I have found a good solution, and a good medicine.”

Huppert descended upon one last display at the Cité du Vin: an interactive quiz intended to determine what kind of wine she most resembled. Rave/Film/Theatre? Countryside/Forest/Desert? Circle/Triangle/Square? The quiz offered little time for reflection, and Huppert jabbed at the buttons. The results flashed up, and she read aloud, “No matter how old you are, you will always remain young at heart.” She retained a note of skepticism in her voice, though the summary seemed at least partially to have captured her personality. She was, it said, “bright, flamboyant, stunning the world. You radiate like a ruby, bursting with aromas of blackcurrant, raspberry, and spices. You have a strong penchant for sugar, for pleasures, spiritual as well as carnal. Capricious in nature, flavorful and potent, you let nothing and no one resist you.” She seemed amused but ultimately nonplussed by her designation as “the most famous Portuguese fortified wine, a Ruby Port.” After all, she had come to the museum to learn about wine, not to learn about herself. Did the summary make sense to her? “I’m not sure,” she said, warily. “I mean, I like champagne.”

Finally: lunchtime. At a restaurant high in the museum’s glass tower, overlooking the city, Huppert ordered a tartare of beets and tiny morsels of mackerel confit, and slurped a naked egg yolk from a deep spoon. She was warm, thoughtful, funny, and even playful. She talked about the terrors of working on the stage: “Whenever you do it, you say, ‘What could be worse than doing it for the first time, for the opening night?’ And the answer is, to die. And so you say, ‘Well, it’s better to do an opening night than dying.’ ” The experience of making movies, she said, is the complete opposite: “It’s neither doing it nor dying. It’s just being completely numb with anesthesia before an operation.” She reflected on the joy of being cast by a director, and the misery of being overlooked or rejected. “It’s always a little miracle, when someone elects you—because it’s like an election. It’s very spiritual, why someone wants you,” she said. “And why someone doesn’t want you, it’s worse!” She drank a glass of red wine from Burgundy, and noted the challenges of filming love scenes and sex scenes, of which she has done more than her fair share, without an intimacy coördinator. “I see certain situations in which actresses are being put, and I say to myself, My God, they are being asked a lot,” she said. “But, if I go further in my thinking, it is not so much a moral point of view as an aesthetic point of view. It’s so impossible to film—in some sense representation fails. It’s the limit of the image.” At the meal’s conclusion, she ordered an espresso with a splash of milk. A waitress brought forth a plate bearing a pink macaron and a miniature lemon-meringue pie, of which Huppert ate the interiors while leaving the outsides intact, like discarded shells. “That is my philosophy: to eat the middle,” she said, with satisfaction.

What else is her philosophy? Huppert recalled Ira Sachs’s observation that she came to set each day as if it were for the first time. “That’s basically my conclusion—I know nothing about anything,” she said. Among the classical forms of “physical expression,” she argued, “acting has a strange status. It has nothing to do with being a dancer, or being a singer, or being an acrobat.” The craft requires voice, but not song; movement, but not dance. “It’s a little bit of not being able to do this, not being able to do that, and then you take it—as in cooking, when you take the leftovers from the preceding evening and you put them all back together. And it can be very good.” The definition was a useful one, she felt, as well as being appropriately modest. I pointed out that lots of things taste better the next day. “Oui, c’est vrai,” she said, neatly. “Absolument.” Hers was the perfect metaphor to pair with the wine. ♦

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