Over the last seven years or so a new way of understanding the French film industry has opened up. Call my Agent!, the popular comedy series concerning a fictional talent agency, invites the nation’s most admired professionals to play heightened versions of themselves. No star gets an almighty dig, but each is allowed to gently tease out popular perceptions concerning their off-stage lives.
Isabelle Huppert did not pop up until the third series. It is a largely affectionate portrayal. That Anglophone tendency to see her as “eccentric” is wound in with a stubborn – borderline defensive – need to portray the French nation as off its collective rocker. Huppert certainly plays herself as a tad intense, but no more so than the series’ versions of Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Adjani. The core joke is that she really, really likes to work. The episode finds Huppert juggling a production of Hamlet with the new Claire Denis film. When some of her lines are cut during a night shoot, she briefly comes close to blowing her top. This Huppert is an acting machine.
“Ha ha! That’s the principle of the series,” she says. “To make fun of the image that actors reflect on the audience. I am not as busy as she is there. In order to make it funnier we make it more busy. I was literally responsible for that exaggeration.”
It is easy to see why that gag sprang into the writers’ heads. The Internet Movie Database lists about 150 credits in a career that has passed its half-century. The real wonder is that, unlike other insanely busy stars such as Nicolas Cage, Huppert is rarely criticised for lack of quality control. You can currently see her in the Oscar-nominated EO. She was just in the amusing British comedy Mrs Harris goes to Paris. La Syndicaliste (also known as The Sitting Duck), in which she plays a whistleblower on the nuclear industry, just played at the Dublin International Film Festival. We are here to discuss her role in the Irish co-production, About Joan.
In that Call My Agent! episode, she briefly becomes confused about which role she is playing. Something similar happens when I ask her about a current co-star.
Stanley Townsend. In About Joan, the veteran Irish actor plays an old love who reunites with the title character decades after a fling in Dublin.
“Oh in Joan! I’m sorry. I’m confused. He is wonderful. He is a very, very nice man and a very good actor.”
Huppert is certainly capable of furrowed introspection. She can ponder Racine and Cocteau with the best of them. You’d guess that. What you may not expect is the friendliness. She doesn’t give an enormous amount away about her private life, but she seems content to blather on merrily until (soon enough) the time comes for another take or another table reading. Some years back, after ending a phone interview in the allotted period, I was surprised to be rung back by her PR person. Isabelle didn’t think we had enough time. Would I like to speak to her for another few minutes? This had never happened before. It has never happened since. Never.
Anyway, Laurent Larivière’s About Joan concerns a retired woman looking back on an eventful life that has taken in dubious relationships and daring career choices. In the opening section, she drives to her country home and muses on that early visit to Dublin. Huppert’s character is, apparently, half-Irish. That seems plausible. She has always had a strain of the Hibernian in her bearing. In La Syndicaliste she plays Irish whistleblower Maureen Kearney.
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“I do look like that,” she says. “In fact, very often people think I have Irish blood because I have red hair and freckles. Because that is really the print of the Irish appearance. Yes? A lot of people think I am that sometimes. Ha, ha!”
I wonder if she identifies with a character reassessing her past as the decades peel away. Joan faces up to a loss that only slowly reveals itself to the audience.
“This is very specialised,” she explains. “It’s not only looking back on any life, it’s looking back on a life in which very specific events occurred. A very traumatic event, you know.”
She gets to see a younger version of herself, played by Freya Mavor, kicking about a Dublin where Lookin’ After No.1 by The Boomtown Rats is played loudly in traditional pubs. It must be an odd experience for Huppert to watch those scenes.
“I think when you have two different actresses it helps you accept this idea of something dreamy,” she says. “You know how you can dream about yourself? And all of a sudden, in your dream, you appear very, very different from what you are in reality. So you have to accept that idea. That is part of the artistic process.”
There is certainly a great love for movies here— Isabelle Huppert
Huppert was born on March 16th, 1953, in a well-off corner of Paris (a little more on that date later). Her mother was an English teacher. Her father owned a company that manufactured safes. Looking back at the CV, it becomes clear she has been at least modestly famous since her early 20s. After studying at Conservatoire national supérieur d’art dramatique, Huppert secured a few decent jobs on TV. She first attracted attention in a significant supporting role opposite Gérard Depardieu in Bertrand Blier’s Les Valseuses in 1974. Three years later she was nominated for a César and won a Bafta for her performance as a young woman adrift with an unsuitable partner in Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker.
And that was that. Huppert has not, to the outside eye, gone through any dizzying ups and downs throughout her career. Her near contemporary Adjani gathered the winds about her in the late 1970s and early 1980s before drifting off to a slightly quieter place. Meanwhile, Huppert kept doing the work and kept getting better. She has aged with dignity, but she works within the same dramatic range that gained her renown half a century ago. She has a sombre intelligence. But she is also funny. Given the right opportunity, she will leap into a higher vocal register that, depending upon the context, indicates either fury or euphoria.
Early on, she worked with Claude Chabrol and André Téchiné. In 1980, she survived the financial catastrophe Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and has remained supportive of that troubled film to the present day. Throughout it all, she retained a very French enthusiasm for cinema.
“There is certainly a great love for movies here,” she says. “Maybe we live under the power of American movies, but we have our own great tradition of movie-philia. And, yes, it’s in our cultural genes. It always has been. It is more visible now that there is a big general crisis with cinema. That is for many reasons – new platforms, the pandemic, whatever reason. But France does maintain a good position. With co-productions as well.”
I wonder about that. About Joan offers a model of how such things work. The film has French, German and Irish investors. The action moves between those countries. Can that be difficult?
There is something very permanent about film. Wherever you go, it is still ‘action’ and it is still ‘cut’— Isabelle Huppert
“No, because there are reasons for that in the writing here,” she says. “The script naturally moves between different countries and different cultures. It’s not one of these artificial puddings, you know? It is not one of those films where you have a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no specificity. I am not Irish myself, for example, but you understand that she has an Irish background.”
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I wonder where Huppert’s own taste for cinema came from. Does she remember the films that inspired her?
“I loved to see films when I was a kid, but I can’t say what inspired me,” she says. “Chaplin! I used to watch Charlie Chaplin movies when I was very little with my family. I started being a proper cinephile later. Maybe only when I started being an actress myself, actually.”
Huppert has made an occasional appearance in English-language cinema without giving the slightest impression she had any enthusiasm for a full embrace of Hollywood (I can’t bring myself to ask if she has been tempted by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I bet she has been asked). You can see her in Hal Hartley’s Amateur. She was no odder than anybody else in David O Russell’s odd I Heart Huckabees. She was recently transcendent in Neil Jordan’s Greta. Do American films feel like a different art form all together? Is commerce always casting a shadow?
“Yes and no,” she says. “It is as different as going from one country to the other – with different languages, different habits, a different way of doing things and so forth. But at the end of the day, not really. Because there is something very permanent about film. Wherever you go, it is still ‘action’ and it is still ‘cut’. There is a permanent ritual that makes it more similar than the contrary.”
Huppert occasionally finds herself playing “the French person” in those English-language films. This is never more the case than in Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. Based on a hokey old novel by Paul Gallico, the film casts Huppert as the embodiment of certain English prejudices about their neighbours. She runs a fashion house. She is snooty. She looks down her nose at honest, working-class English virtues.
I guess I enjoy it or otherwise I wouldn’t do it— Isabelle Huppert
“Yeah, sure. It’s very true,” she says, laughing. “It’s very funny. It is just the way the English see the French. Yet I am French myself. Ha, ha! So it has this kind of distance because I am French. It makes sense. That was the idea. If it wasn’t for that it would have been much more boring to do.”
So what does drive Huppert to such Stakhanovite exertions? If anything, she has been busier and more successful than ever in the current century. She won her second César award and secured her first Oscar nomination for playing a stubborn rape survivor in Paul Verhoeven’s typically provocative Elle from 2016. Her record as the female actor with the most films in the Cannes competition is unlikely ever to be beaten. Is it old-fashioned work ethic? Is this just her way of having fun?
“I guess I enjoy it or otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” she says patiently. “Opportunities come along. Of course. But it’s my pleasure. It’s my life.”
Somewhere in there she and her partner, Ronald Chammah, managed to raise three children. Lolita Chammah, her daughter, is a busy actor. I can’t help but wonder if Isabelle has time for anything else in her life. Does she have a hobby? Does she weave baskets or throw pots?
“Yeah, I go see movies a lot,” she says. “I’m a good movie buff when I have some spare time. But even when I don’t have spare time I like to go and see movies.”
When not jetting from one set to the next, she is rehearsing for the stage. Huppert remains as active a theatre actor as she is a movie star. I feel tired just reading about it. She is currently planning a trip to Taiwan with an acclaimed production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. She recently finished a run in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. There have been cracks at Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Genet’s The Maids and – Williams again – Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
I don’t feel have lost my privacy. It is still in very good shape— Isabelle Huppert
“Most of the time it’s to do with the opportunity to work with exceptional, gifted people,” she says. “When you have such opportunities, it makes it really worthwhile.”
Looking down the huge list of her stage work, I am faintly astonished to see she had never taken on Samuel Beckett (who, of course, often wrote in French). She would be perfect for the increasingly buried protagonist of that author’s Happy Days.
“Actually, I was offered it a couple of times,” she says with a hint of regret. “I think I will end up doing it at some point. I am sure.”
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You can’t help but admire Huppert’s commitment to the chill. I am sure she can be intense on set or in rehearsal, but her reaction to any suggestion of career overload or unmanageable pressure is the characteristic shrug that has made France great. When I make an effort to get her to complain about the lack of privacy that comes with fame, she seems genuinely puzzled.
“What? No, I don’t feel have lost my privacy. It is still in very good shape.”
She may never have achieved Beyoncé levels of celebrity, but Huppert really has been a household name at home since the mid-1970s. Perhaps the French public are just a little more relaxed about famous people. Maybe they let them be.
“I have been in foreign countries where maybe I could have been bothered. But really it has never happened to me. No. In my case, it’s not any sort of burden. But for me, it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage.”
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It must be some consolation that she has, for a decade or so, had at least a finger or two on the “best of her generation” title. A recent New York Times listicle had her in second place – just behind Denzel Washington, if you please – in the piece’s imagined “greatest actors of the 21st century”. As the years fell away, she stuck to her task and confirmed she was equally adept in the lightest of comedies and the most furniture-chewing melodramas. Best female actor working today? Why not?
“That can be a little bit of a burden,” she says. “Sometimes I say: ‘Wow. Can that really be true?’ Yeah. You have mixed feelings about this. You can’t really totally reject it. Because it’s nice to hear. But the next step? Can I really believe it?”
There is no sense of her slowing down. She has a significant birthday coming up (I’ll let you do the maths yourself). Will that give her pause?
“I think… next question,” she says.
Don’t worry. She’s laughing as she says it.
About Joan is in cinemas now