Oscar Actors: Huppert, Isabelle–Career Achievement Honoree, Berlin Film Fest 2022

Isabelle Huppert: “Taking Risks Is Rule of the Game”

The French screen icon talks about her daring career, the impact of #MeToo, and her still strong belief in cinema.

 

With a career as accomplished and acclaimed as that of Isabelle Huppert, who is 68, it’s tempting to treat her like a legendary rock star.

The French actress with the red hair and the cool onscreen demeanor has made more than 120 feature films, racking up 16 César nominations and two wins (La Cérémonie in 1995, Elle in 2016), taking two best actress trophies in Cannes (for Violette Nozière in 1978 and 2001’s The Piano Teacher) two in Venice (La Cérémonie and 1998’s Une affaire de femmes), two European Film Awards (best actress for The Piano Teacher and an ensemble award for 2002’s 8 Women), and one Oscar nomination (best actress for Elle).

Huppert’s fearless embrace of extremes–the sadomasochistic Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, her provocative portrayal in Elle of a woman who seeks out her rapist for further encounters–defy any conventional categories.

Ahead of receiving the Berlin Fest’s Golden Bear Award for lifetime achievement, Huppert spoke about how she started acting, the impact of #MeToo, and the links among the women she has played onscreen.

How did you come to acting?

Like many young kids, my mother took me to an acting school. When I was onstage, I immediately saw I was in my element. I was happy onstage. And it was easy. It didn’t require any effort. I never really felt I had to learn something or fight to do it. Being an actress was all very easy from the very beginning.

Has it stayed easy?

Absolutely. Right now, I’m onstage in Paris doing The Cherry Orchard. And I was just thinking how happy I am. It’s such an intense source of pleasure and satisfaction. That was there from the beginning and it’s still there.

First lead role in 1977’s The Lacemaker

I remember very clearly. The film was based on a book and the description of the character was: big round cheeks with freckles and red hair. I thought: “Well, that’s me.” It was the perfect vehicle for a young actress, in the sense that it wasn’t a role that relied on seduction or physical beauty, but more on great interiority. It was a great role to start with, to be identified with.

 

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Isabelle Huppert in Cannes in 1984 JEAN-MARC ZAORSKI/GAMMA-RAPHO/GETTY IMAGES

Pivotal roles in development as an actress?

Certainly roles like The Piano Teacher and Elle, because they are both daring and provocative, and really say something about feminine behavior. I never thought before doing them that I was going to deliver a statement about what it means to be a woman, or to have the characters be some kind of metaphor for the feminine condition, but at the end of the day, that’s what happened.

I think what really defines those characters is the fact that they are never victims. That’s kind of my trademark.

Playing extreme characters?

It depends on whom you do it with. Doing The Piano Teacher with Michael Haneke or Elle with Paul Verhoeven, with people in whom I have great trust, I was never scared I would be betrayed or overexposed, or mis-exposed. I was in control, I had total trust in them. I was never scared. But taking risks is part of the game. It’s part of the challenge. If I get it wrong, if I’m misunderstood, it’s not so important. They are just movies, after all.

Industry changes in long career in cinema?

I could be optimistic and say I don’t see any change. If I am very pessimistic, I could be like Jean-Luc Godard, who quite a few years ago predicted the end of cinema. In France right now, what we call auteur films, especially for an older audience, it is very difficult for them to be successful. Even bigger films, like The Last Duel or West Side Story, have not been successful. It’s difficult to say exactly the reasons why this is happening. Is it the strength of TV series? Is it the pandemic? I don’t know. But I still believe in cinema.

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Huppert and Swann Arlaud in the Berlin out-of-competition entry About Joan. COURTESY OF 247 FILMS

Impact of the #MeToo movement

I think it has had a great impact on women’s lives in general. Cinema is just a small part of that, an important part because #MeToo grew from actresses and public people having the strength to speak out. But #MeToo has become so essential for all women in the world, not only women in cinema. For me, personally, it didn’t really change anything. I’ve been choosing the kind of movies I make for a very long time. #MeToo didn’t mean anything new for me in terms of the roles I choose and the people I work with. I’ve worked with so many women in the past and continue to do so.

What do you get out of acting?

It’s nothing more and nothing less than being in the present moment. That’s what moviemaking and stage work is, really. That’s the beauty of it. That’s its strength. And that’s also the challenge because it’s not so easy to achieve. It’s not about the preparation before or the anticipation of what comes after. The great opportunity film and stage work give you as an actor is the opportunity to exist in the moment, with such intensity. It’s not about sending a message or planning a career or anything. It’s just the pleasure of doing it in the moment you do it. Nothing before, nothing after. Just that. But it’s a lot.

 

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