May 8, 2011

Report: Isabelle Huppert in Conversation

Last night I was lucky enough to be at the National Film Theatre to see Isabelle Huppert give a career interview and receive the BFI Fellowship. As you may know, Huppert is one of my great heroes, I consider her if not the finest actress alive one of the top two, and my admiration for her is prompted to grow every time a new film of hers comes out (which, happily, tends to be frequently, as she's a workaholic).

Huppert; small, but not delicate, appeared in a stylish dark suit with red stripes, with minimal make up and, contrary to her reputation as difficult interview subject, seemed open and ready to discuss her 40 year career.

Despite being a big fan I've done little real research about Isabelle Huppert (perhaps to preserve the illusion when she's on screen), and so it was a surprise to get some insight into her process, or rather her lack of one. A recurring theme of the evening was the ease with which she approaches acting; she does no real research (even for, say, A Story of Women, in which she was playing a character inspired by a real woman) or reading around her subject, relying instead on herself to conjure the character, seemingly from within. Frequently she repeated 'acting is imagination' and that she sees film, even that closely inspired by real life, as fantasy.

This laid back nature seems to carry through into her choices and on set habits. She spoke of getting a feeling about the many first time directors she has worked with (and that the director is always the most important aspect in getting her to sign up for a film). She noted that she has no preference about how a director works 'that's his problem', and that she's only really been taken aback by someone's methods once; she described how, on La Truite, Joseph Losey would almost always do only one take, even for complex tracking shots, and recalled asking him what would happen if there were a technical problem 'are we going to come back to Japan?'

She spoke only briefly about Claude Chabrol, and the emotion of his relatively recent death still seemed quite raw. She offered the tantalising morsel (never picked up, sadly) that she had been about to work with him again, and described her relationship with him as that of a Father and Daughter, and suggested that they each understood, at a cinematic level, the other's tastes and needs. There was more detail, and a couple of stories, about Michael Haneke. She told a funny story about calling him from a phone booth in Scotland ('My kingdom', she called it, as she had been doing Mary Stuart at the National around the time of this holiday) to turn him down for Funny Games, and later detailed how, anxious to work with him after years of not working together, she only read the screenplay for The Piano Teacher closely on the plane the day before starting work, and was shocked at what she'd agreed to do.

Haneke also came up in discussion when what is 'real' in film was discussed. Huppert said that film is realistic, rather than real (a distinction I've been talking about for years, incidentally), and used an example from The Piano Teacher of Haneke (who, she noted, often does a lot of takes) making her drag Annie Girardot by the hair over and over again, because it didn't yet feel real on film, and that she only really saw what he meant on seeing, rather than playing, the scene. Another topic that came up in terms of realism was Huppert's gift for silence on screen. She was, perhaps, a little dismissive of this skill that she has, the ability to listen, and tell us something by listening, on screen. She put it down to the director, to the editor, and to cinema itself, which, she said, 'makes silence audible'. This was another recurring theme; any suggestion of technique or skill seemed to get slapped down, often with slight bafflement, with the notion that it's all a combination of her imagination and the technique of film.

As Huppert seemed to become more playful as the interview went on it is perhaps hard to say how sincere what seemed to be an exclusive revelation may have been, but here it is anyway... She said that she had, that day, thought of directing a film for the very first time, that she had read a story in the newspaper on the Eurostar and thought that there was a great role to play, and then thought 'I should direct'. I hope this turns out to be true, and to happen.

Perhaps the biggest running theme of the evening, and something that came through in every answer, whether or not it was explicitly spoken, was Huppert's love of her work; she seems still to find it exciting, and spoke of every film as doing it again for the first time, self-deprecatingly noting that she doesn't feel she has learned anything in her career, and that, to me, seems to be at the heart of her daring as an actress.

The audience Q and A was a typically mixed bag, the best question came towards the end when someone asked which directors Huppert might have liked to work with, she said Hitchcock, sharing, I'm sure, a desire with the audience, and also noted that she had never worked with a British director, which must have had budding filmmakers in the audience champing at the bit. I got the mic for the last question, but sadly she went into that story about not reading The Piano Teacher, and I never got to ask about the experience of making Heaven's Gate and what she now makes of the film, because we had run out of time. Still, though that, and the fact that I wasn't able to meet her, was a shame, it was a fascinating interview with one of the great talents in cinema, and it was an absolute pleasure just to listen to her.

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