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Isabelle Huppert on the Emotional Power of Cinema

Valley of Love (2015), dir. Guillaume Nicloux

“Filmmaking is a collective assemblage of desires,” said Isabelle Huppert when we sat down to talk on a recent morning. We were speaking about how she picks her roles, and how her own intuition about a part is shaped by the people involved in its production. And for the incomparable French actress, who’s appeared in well over a hundred films and has spent the past four decades honing her ferocious talent, it’s a subject she’s spent a long time exploring. She’s embodied complex women for many of cinema’s greatest artists, and her name has become synonymous with a certain kind of intensity and on-screen vigor.

In just the first ten years of her career, Huppert worked with a stunning lineup of directors—from Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey to Jean-Luc Godard and Bertrand Tavernier—and she swiftly established herself as one of the most fascinating actors of her generation. In the decades since, her work with such filmmakers as Claude Chabrol, Maurice Pialat, Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, and Catherine Breillant has made her an icon. Now sixty-two, Huppert remains as prolific and mesmerizing as ever; already this year she’s starred in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, and Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, which had its U.S. premiere last Thursday at this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Valley of Love reunites Huppert with fellow French legend Gérard Depardieu—thirty-five years after they shared the screen in Pialat’s visceral drama Loulou—to tell the story of two former lovers who come together in Death Valley to mourn the death of their son. Whether they’re navigating the desert landmarks of the West or reclining beside the pool of their nondescript tourist motel, the two deliver beautifully nuanced performances with a rapport that keenly suggests the unspoken history between them. On the morning after the film’s premiere, I spoke with Huppert about her about the emotional extremity of her characters, her relationship with filmmakers, and the instinctual nature of her acting approach.

Left: Loulou (1980), dir. Maurice Pialat Right: Valley of Love
You first appeared on-screen with Gérard Depardieu briefly in Bertrand Blier’s Going Places in 1974 and then so memorably in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou in 1980. And there’s still such a palpable chemistry and intimacy between the two of you. How was the experience of reuniting and acting together again?

We do have that chemistry together. We really act naturally together, so it’s very, very easy. We have the same intuition of what a role should be, or what a situation should be, so there aren’t too many questions. We just understand it, and that’s how it should be most of the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about what we do, but before doing it we have a good understanding of all the components of the film, so to be in tune, we don’t have to discuss a lot.

Do you find that you generally approach your characters emotionally and instinctually rather than intellectually?

Of course it’s a mixture of all three. Intellectually, because you think about a role, but when you do it, it’s pure instinct. You don’t think about it any more and you just have to do it—but you can do that because you’ve thought about it a lot before. Emotionally, it’s hard to describe because, yes of course, it’s emotional, but when you do things emotionally in the film, as an actress you also use yourself as an instrument. So you have a distance to your own emotions because you control them.

Every Man for Himself (1980), dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Throughout your career you’ve worked with so many incredible filmmakers. When choosing a new project, is it the director that piques your interest first?

I first think of the director, because I’m a French actress, so I think it’s more French to think first about the director and then think about the script and then about the role. Let’s take Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher for example, or Claire Denis’s White Material—if you take the directors off you don’t have the same film. So for me, the director is essential, it’s my first criterion. Of course when it comes to first-time directors it’s different, but then you have other elements to create your own intuition. Filmmaking is a collective assemblage of desires, so you have a producer, and you have other people to let you know if your own perception is right. I’m happy, because I did quite a few films by first time-directors over the past ten years, and I was never wrong because their work has all been very good.

White Material (2009), dir. Claire Denis
Your willingness to go to emotional extremes and challenge your own boundaries is something that’s always fascinated me. Is that something you still search for in the roles you play?

Yes, but that’s what I expect from being an actress. But it’s also a game. It’s an extraordinary game and very intriguing for people because you play with what you are. Any movie in itself plays on that, and that becomes such a mystery for people, because people don’t know how much it’s the person and how much it’s not the person, so it’s a great emotional phenomenon. And that’s why cinema is so important in the world—because it’s a great emotional event for people. But it’s different for spectators than for actors. If it was as strong for the actors as it is for the spectators, it would be very difficult to do.

So you’ve adjusted to the process of disconnecting from your roles and going back to your own life once a film is over?

Oh completely, sure. Absolutely. Although I know how personal they are, and I know how much of myself I put in these roles. But yes, I’m perfectly happy and inclined to separate myself completely.

Coup de torchon (1981), dir. Bertrand Tavernier
Have you found a difference between making films in the U.S. and in Europe?

Oh yes, it’s different. I even felt it on Louder Than Bombs, which isn’t exactly an American feature, because it’s by a Norwegian director but shot in New York, and is more European than American. In the U.S., even when you think that a movie is small, it’s never as small as you thought. It’s more difficult here to really impose certain conditions of simplicity, and sometimes it’s more loaded. I’ve done very few films here, but maybe not being from here also creates this illusion that things are a little bit more difficult for me because I’m not American. But even if I lived regularly in this country I would still feel it, because I know how we do it in France. Small American films here will always be less small than a small French film.

Is there a certain film you’ve worked on or role you’ve played that you’re particularly fond of?

I can say that I’m proud of most of them. When you do films you have to really believe it. I’m a believer, and you can’t be a skeptic when you do a film. You have to believe; it’s all about that. When you’re an actress—I define it this way—you are a believer as much as possible when you’re doing it, but you become very easily unfaithful to it, because once it’s done, it’s done.

Valley of Love
What was the last thing you saw that truly blew you away?

I’ve seen some remarkable productions on stage recently in France. Actually I’ve seen more stage productions than films recently. I’m a theater buff; I like to go to the theater. There’s a great Belgian director right now, Ivo van Hove, who just directed the musical Lazarus. I might work with him in the future because he’s really wonderful. Recently, with his company [Toneelgroep Amsterdam] he did a production about Shakespeare that was amazing [Kings of War]. It was Richard III, Henry V and Henry VI, and several bits of Shakespeare plays, and it was great. I hope it comes here, because it was fantastic.

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