Violent femme: Why Isabelle Huppert isn’t afraid of being scary

Some think she’s ‘a bit frightening’, including in Neil Jordan’s Greta, but the star couldn’t be nicer

'I have a very specific memory of Dublin because I went there when I was a little girl to learn English," Isabelle Huppert says. "I was 14 years old and I have wonderful memories. I was minding horses. I would take courses in the morning and then riding lessons in the afternoon. That was wonderful, wonderful."

If anybody has memories of a young Huppert riding about the outskirts of Dublin, then contact us at this address. Mind you, as a redhead with generous freckles, she is unlikely to have stood out from the contemporaneous crowd.

Living up to her own legend must be a challenge. Huppert is among a small band of women regularly classed as 'Our Greatest Living Actress'

She stands out now. Living up to her own legend must be a challenge. Huppert is among a small band of women regularly classed as ‘Our Greatest Living Actress’. When she received her first Oscar nomination in 2017, rare enough for someone acting in French, loud were the sighs of relief among the world’s cinematic community.

Huppert also has to cope with the lazy suggestion that she’s a bit frightening. This misconception seems to spring from her immersion in forbidding roles such as the disturbed lead in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher or the psychopathic postmistress in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie. In my experience, Huppert couldn’t be nicer. She doesn’t talk much about her private life, but, in excellent, if eccentric, English, she will muse at Proustian length on her profession and satellite topics.


She lives with her husband, the film-maker Ronald Chammah, in a sort of peaceful equilibrium that, perhaps, only French stars can manage. She gets on well with her three children. There are worse ways of coping with status.

Her performance in Neil Jordan’s imminent, hugely enjoyable Greta will, nonetheless, do little to ease the nerves of those who expect actors to live their characters’ lives off-screen. Huppert plays a weird loner who develops an initially inexplicable obsession with cheery hipster Chloë Grace Moretz. To say more would be to spoil. It’s a hoot.

"First of all, I loved working with Neil Jordan, " she says. "I am a great admirer of his early films. Everyone remembers The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. I was really happy when I learned that he was working on this."

What appeals about Neil Jordan? He’s a famously unconventional character with a meandering conversational style that must surely take actors to unlikely places. I can’t imagine him wearing jodhpurs and bellowing through a megaphone.

“I know! He’s a character,” she says. “I think he is very funny. He has this funny way of talking. I think he uses a lot of poetry. That’s what I like about the film. It’s hard to categorise. It’s a thriller. But it’s not quite reality. It’s like a fairy tale. It has the prototypes of the good and the bad – of the virgin girl and the evil woman.”

Greta also offers an interesting version of New York City whose calculated oddness derives from the film being partially shot in Toronto and Dublin. Huppert now feels quite at home in Ireland.

“I have been a number of times,” she says. “I went to the Galway festival [Film Fleadh] – with Kate O’Toole – and I did a movie for television in Cork. So, I know Ireland well. I was happy to spend that amount of time in Ireland. It is wonderful.”

I wonder about young Huppert honing her equestrian skills in a greyer version of Dublin. The daughter of an English-language teacher (figures) and a businessman, she was born in central Paris and raised in a western suburb outside the Boulevard Périphérique. She was still a teenager when she began acting on television. Mainstream recognition came with Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker in 1977. The 14-year-old Huppert must already have been contemplating the actor’s life.

“No, not when I was 14 years old,” she says. “But not long after, because I started when I was 17. It just happened. I took acting lessons when I was in school. But I didn’t ever decide, I think. Life decided for me.”

She was “discovered”?

“I just meant that I really wanted to be an actress. Right at the beginning of something you are often not so sure of yourself. But I was sure. I was sure.”

There is no sense that she struggled for work in her early years. She has scored at least one film credit – usually a few more – for every year since 1972. In the 1970s alone, she worked with Otto Preminger, Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and Bertrand Blier. There can't have been many nights when she sat around wondering if this was really the life for her.

“No, you’re right. That never really happened to me,” she says. “Early on – I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision – I always had great versatility. I did stage work. I worked abroad from an early age. Not just in Europe. That gave me a broad range. The more you do various things, the more possibilities open up. I wasn’t just hanging around Paris doing French films.”

That’s very true. As we speak, she is appearing in Florian Zeller’s play The Mother at an intimate off-Broadway venue that could hardly be more sold out if they were giving out free money in the interval. We remember her in Hal Hartley’s Amateur, David O Russell’s I Heart Huckabees and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. She never fails to bring charismatic strangeness to the film around her. But there must be challenges acting in English.

“No, it’s not really a challenge on film. It’s more a challenge in the theatre,” she says. “In movies, it’s more about being someone else. You are not the same person in a foreign language as you are in your mother tongue. I believe that helps as an actor. Because when you act you want to become somebody else.”

She then makes a fascinating qualification that should be boiled into a mantra for any actor moving between languages.

“If you can capture a sense of humour and irony in a foreign language then you are safe,” she says. “If you can’t catch the irony then you are limited. The play I am doing now is quite funny. We laugh a lot. That gives you freedom. Drama and tragedy are more universal. Comedy is more particular.”

That seems indisputable. It’s interesting that, whereas “serious” French cinema travels well, mainstream French comedies almost always flop overseas.

“Exactly! Exactly! Yes, that’s it.”

In 1979, she got caught up in the financial debacle that was Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. It is now regarded as a baggy classic, and Huppert's performance is much celebrated

In 1979, she got caught up in the financial debacle that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. A few philistine producers felt that the casting of Huppert – essentially unknown to middle America – was a typically unhinged decision from an out-of-control director. The film lost about $37 million and triggered the collapse of United Artists. It suffered from withering reviews in the US, but was much better received in Europe. Heaven’s Gate is now regarded as a baggy classic, and Huppert’s performance is much celebrated.

"We were aware that things were going crazy and strange," she says. "I was supposed to be there for three months and I ended up being there for seven months. After two months, things started to be put back on a more normal track, but it still took a long time. We were aware of all that. But we had such confidence and trust in Michael Cimino. "

I can remember that, by the time a shorter version reached the UK and Ireland, the picture had already gone through vigorous reassessment. When Cimino died in 2016, the obituaries were as warm about Heaven’s Gate as they were about the same director’s The Deer Hunter.

“I never lost faith in the belief that it was a masterpiece,” she says. “And I remained close to Michael until he died. I think that there was a rejection that marked him forever after Heaven’s Gate. But you remember that Barry Lyndon was also rejected. That happens.”

Hollywood risked catastrophe many times before happening upon a reliable menu of young wizards in boarding schools, superheroes in capes and the Rock in fast cars. Huppert continued to do pretty much what she was doing in 1977 and continued to prosper.

It is worth considering how the business has changed for women. Senior actresses at the upper end of the ladder – Huppert, Streep, Mirren – secure better roles than the likes of Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck managed at the same age. Indeed, Huppert has never been more in demand. Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come was among the most celebrated films of the last five years. She got that Oscar nomination for Paul Verhoeven's Elle.

Meanwhile, the Harvey Weinstein allegations gave way to the #MeToo rearrangement. It does feel as if there has been a shift. The air seems sharper.

“In terms of artistic content, it has changed ever since I began,” Huppert says. “I think I was a feminist without knowing it. I mean that. I was. Instinctively without underlining it in any way. I was a feminist in the sense that I always wanted to be at the centre of the film.”

She fights a little for the English as she considers the passing years.

That actresses are less well paid than men is just not acceptable. So that has to change. I remember us thinking: actors are paid more; well, that's just something you can't change

“Now, how have I changed? I think what’s important now is about the practical element more than the artistic element. The differences in salary for example. The fact that actresses are less well paid than men is just not acceptable. So that has to change. I remember us thinking: actors are paid more; well, that’s just something you can’t change.”

Her Gallic shrug summons up earlier fatalism.

A year before Weinstein broke, Huppert was confronted with related issues when, after a buzzy Cannes premiere, Verhoeven’s Elle unexpectedly found itself part of the awards conversation. It remains a hard film to parse. One wonders how the central character’s (arguably) blasé approach to her own rape would have played 12 months later.

“Honestly, I didn’t think much about the controversy,” Huppert says. “The controversy never created a complete rejection. On the contrary I would say. The recognition the film got from audiences and from critics was the answer to that. The movie went beyond controversy. The film was giving its own answer.”

Even those who had reservations about Elle applauded Huppert's performance and few begrudged her the Oscar nomination. It was quite a year to be in the Kodak Theatre. That was the ceremony that ended with Faye Dunaway announcing the wrong film as best picture. Emma Stone beat the Hupp to best actress, but she seems pleased just to have been there.

“I wasn’t surprised by much,” she says. “I had watched it many times. It feels almost smaller because you are in the middle of it all. Ha ha! The television screen makes it seem bigger. The year I went there was the mix up with best picture. There was a lot going on. It was very exciting and very funny.”

Onward. Onward. She is now looking forward to a production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie by red-hot theatre director Ivo van Hove and to a film with Brendan Gleeson.

“That was my first time with Brendan and he was wonderful.”

A fellow redhead.

“Yes, yes. Exactly!”

And she continues to plough her own furrow.

“I can’t change the roles I’m offered,” she says. “But I don’t want to be a follower.”

Nobody would dare suggest such a thing.

Greta is at cinemas now

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist