Isabelle Huppert is back at the Venice Festival with her new film, Promises, directed by Thomas Kruithof, premiering in the Horizons section.

4. PROMISES © 2021, 24 25 FILMS – WILD BUNCH – FRANCE 2 CINEMA - ELLE DRIVER. Photo credits Jérôme Prébois


One of French cinema’s greatest stars has played sexually uptight piano teachers, killers, prostitutes, ex-nuns and unhappy wives.

This, however, is the first time Huppert has portrayed a local politician.

As Clémence, the mayor of a tough and impoverished town just outside Paris, she knows how the system works and what compromises need to be made to help her constituents.

Things change when she suddenly has the opportunity to become a minister.

“There is  certain ambiguity,” Huppert says of what drew her to the role of the ruthless, self-centered but ultimately idealistic politician. “She is not a bad person. She is not always a good person. She is driven by her ambition, a legitimate ambition. Her personal ambition is mixed with social ambition, fighting for this building to be renovated.

Contradictory Feelings

“She’s an interesting character because she falls between contradictory feelings,” she continues. “Usually, political films are more like westerns: you have the good and the bad.”

In Promises, French writer-director Kruithof explores the grey areas between right and wrong and looks at the compromises that every politician is forced to make. Huppert had admired the director’s previous film (debut feature), the 2016 dark thriller La Mécanique De L’ombre starring François Cluzet.

Huppert has met real-life politicians, like Annie Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2014. She has also read about the kind of housing problems that the film deals with. However, her approach to the role was typically matter-of-fact: “You have to make the character believable. It goes through the costumes, the way you appear, the way you dress, elegant but not too much.”

Huppert made Promises after completing Michele Placido’s 16th-century-set period drama Caravaggio’s Shadow, in which she plays the Roman aristocrat and protector of the artist Caravaggio, Costanza Sforza Colonna.

Huppert is known for her ability to “jump into these opposite worlds,” making a period film and then a contemporary political thriller.

She enjoys collaborating with talented younger filmmakers. “I’ve worked very often with first-time directors, quite successfully,” she says, reeling off names like Ursula Meier with her debut feature Home (2008), Joachim Lafosee with Naked Property (2006) and Alexandra Leclère with The Angry Sisters (2004). “I made mostly good choices by working with all these people making their first films. In the case of Thomas, it is his second film.”

Huppert doesn’t believe younger directors are daunted at the idea of working with an actress of her caliber. “It’s the first time for everyone when you do a film whether you’ve done 60 movies like me, or whether you’ve done only one or none.”

Huppert had a high-profile role in Michael Cimino’s epic western Heaven’s Gate (1980), the movie that bankrupted United Artists. Since then, her forays into English-language cinema have been infrequent, including roles in Curtis Hanson’s The Bedroom Window (1987) and David O Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) alongside indies like Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994) and Ned Benson’s The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (2013).

Successes or failures, she says: “I have to say I’m quite proud of all the English-speaking films I have done in my life.”

She is already a two-time winner of Venice’s Volpi Cup (for La Ceremonie in 1995, shared with co-star Sandrine Bonnaire, and A Story Of Women in 1988) and multiple European Film Awards nominee, Huppert has 16 Cesar nominations, including two wins (La Ceremonie and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle).  She earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the latter film.

Isabelle Huppert

She has often played evil characters, like her predatory widow in Neil Jordan’s Greta (2018) and evil stepmother in Anne Fontaine’s Pure As Snow (2019), Huppert nods in agreement. She likes taking a trip on the dark side.

“There is a different way of showing malevolence now,” she says. “Before, you had the good and the bad but now there is more ambiguity. It is much more interesting to see how an individual can be good on the surface and bad underneath.”

From Greek tragedy to Shakespeare, the most intriguing characters always tend to be the nastiest. “You have all these supposedly malevolent characters and they are usually the most interesting. I am not saying that doing non-malevolent character is not interesting.  Sometimes I think I would love to play really iconic good character.”

Owner of Two Arthouse Cinemas

Huppert is also the owner of two rep cinemas in Paris, the Christine Cinema Club and the Ecoles Cinema Club, which her son Lorenzo Chammah programs. “The ultimate and great place to watch movie remains the theatres,” she says.

In France, running cinemas is tough business–spectators have to show Covid health passes–and box office is falling. “It makes the situation for theatres very difficult but I can only encourage people to go, because that is the best place to watch movies, in a dark room with people, on a big screen,” she says.

Spectators are coming back, at least to Huppert’s theatres. “The attendance is not tragic. Given the situation, it is not too bad.”

Her cinemas show classic movies. “There is still hunger for this kind of film,” she says. “Traditionally, these two cinemas were always more devoted to American films from the 1950s. Now, the programming goes from Japanese films to American films to French films.”

In spite of the pandemic, her work schedule remains as frantic as ever. She has recently been on stage, in Ivo van Hove’s production of The Glass Menagerie and opening this year’s Avignon Festival in The Cherry Orchard.

She says both of those productions are likely to be revived as is Robert Wilson’s production of Mary Said What She Said in which Huppert plays Mary, Queen of Scots, and which had been due to play in New York and LA before Covid intervened.

Huppert is in Venice to support Promises. After that, she is off to Japan to star in Sidonie, the new film by Elise Girard, and is also due to appear in The Syndicalist, from director Jean-Paul Salomé, with whom she made 2020’s Mama Weed.