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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Public Interview with Isabelle Huppert

During the summer our next-door neighbors do house swaps with people in other countries. It’s a great way for them to spend a week or two in another country economically. It also means that sometimes we have visitors from abroad living next door. For the past couple of weeks we have had two crazy Frenchmen living there. If you looked up the phrase joie de vivre in a dictionary, you would find their picture there.

When I told Alain on Sunday that I was going to sit in the audience for a public interview with the esteemed actor Isabelle Huppert at the Galway Film Fleadh, he was beside himself with envy. He made me promise that if I got to talk to her (not bloody likely) that I had to tell her that he was her biggest fan. This is a testament to how much Ms. Huppert is esteemed in her country—as she is by cinephiles all over the world.

Of course, I wasn’t the one talking to Ms. Huppert. That honor went to Sean Rocks, host of the RTÉ arts radio program Arena, on which the recorded interview will air.

The actor received a warm response from the audience which was clearly filled with devoted fans. Everyone always looks taller than they really are when they are on a stage, but even so the petite Huppert seemed slight and elfin. From the back rows the 59-year-old actor looked every bit like a teenage girl. Her English was very good although with a strong accent. She made a point of avoiding French words—even to the point of referring a couple of times to “author movies” instead of auteur movies—invariably using the English language titles of her movies. Only once did she get stuck for a word she wanted to use and asked the audience for help.

In his questions, Rocks focused mainly on the four films shown in tribute to her at the Fleadh (Madame Bovary, White Material, The Piano Teacher and Heaven’s Gate). He stayed away from her personal life, except to ask her about her siblings also being actors. Looking a bit confused, she said that her sister Elisabeth (who is also a filmmaker) went into acting after she had. Huppert looked even more confused when Rocks asked her about a reported compulsion of hers to eat bread every day at five o’clock—something he had apparently read on the internet. Giving one of many Gallic shrugs during the afternoon, she said that this was the normal time for tea.

In another bread-related incident, when the inevitable prompting came for her to say something nice about Ireland, Huppert remarked that she liked the bread here. This was surprising to those of us who much prefer the bread in France, and Rocks joked that she must have been eating Cuisine de France (a company that makes French-style bread and pastries). No, she insisted, she preferred the bread she had been eating in Ireland. She didn’t like baguettes.

Not surprisingly, she had only nice things to say about the directors she worked with. She confessed that she had not read the Gustave Flaubert novel before she was cast in the title role in Madame Bovary by director Claude Chabrol, whom she called a very “Flaubertian filmmaker.” We also found out that she was not really a movie buff before she went into acting. She appeared in White Material because she was already friends with director Claire Denis. She was offered a role in Austrian director Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games (about how movies manipulate audiences with violence) and, though she found the script “wonderful,” she felt she couldn’t do it. She did, however, appear in another disturbing film of Haneke’s, The Piano Teacher. Asked if the scenes of sadomasochism were hard to do and if they took on toll on her, she said matter-of-factly that often what is hard to watch on screen is actually fun to do as an actor.

Asked about Heaven’s Gate, Huppert said that Michael Cimino became determined to have her play the prostitute Ella after seeing her in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou. Refusing to take no for an answer, he had her brought to New York to practice skating and then to Montana, where a scheduled two-month shoot dragged out to seven months. Speaking fondly of Cimino, she said that he was very affected by the harsh reception that the film received and, implying that he was in a form of self-exile, said that he had been living in France for the past several years. In discussing different versions of Heaven’s Gate (the one we were to see was in excess of two and a half hours), she said that Cimino had his own personal cut which was in excess of five hours. When given the chance to comment on the political content of films like White Material and Heaven’s Gate, Huppert did not take the bait and seemed bemused that she would be asked to add her own comment to the statements made by the films.

She said she took a role in I Heart Huckabees because she was a big fan of filmmaker David O. Russell’s early films, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, which she found “hilarious.” Rocks brought up François Ozon’s Eight Women, in which Huppert appeared with other female legends of French cinema, including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart and Fanny Ardant, hungrily suggesting that there must be some good stories about that shoot, given all of the combined talent. Once again, Huppert volunteered no anecdotes and said simply that “it was nice. It was fun.”

Rocks also mentioned her appearance in a 2010 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He asked why she took that role, given that she surely must be offered TV roles all the time. “No, not really,” replied the actor, implying this was the only time she had ever been asked.

Huppert was asked about her long association with the Cannes Film Festival. She has appeared in way more movies in the festival’s official competition than any other woman actor, and she is tied with three others (Barbara Hershey, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave) for having won the most acting awards (for Violette Nozière and The Piano Teacher). She has been on the festival jury a number of times and was president of the jury, Rocks teased, the year that Haneke won the Palme d’Or (for The White Ribbon). The jury was very democratic, she assured him with a Cheshire cat smile.

Although the interview focused on Huppert’s film work, it became apparent that stage work has always been and continues to be important to the actor. There were at least a few fans of the short-lived English playwright Sarah Kane in the audience. In 2005 Huppert toured the United States in her play 4.48 Psychosis, in which her body remained motionless throughout. It is a performance that could be seen only live, as Kane had forbidden her works ever to be filmed. Earlier this year she played Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.

The interview had (as it seems to every year) started late and ended even later. Then we were treated to that screening of Heaven’s Gate. That was followed by a ceremony in which the Fleadh awards were handed out. I was sitting on an aisle in the very back. As sometimes happens, one of the Fleadh staff asked me if I could move over one seat to let someone else sit on the aisle. A slight woman with long hair was then seated next to me. After a couple of minutes the Fleadh staffer asked her if she would like to sit closer to the stage, and then she changed seats. The first two awards were the special Fleadh tribute called the Galway Hooker. One went to filmmaker Frank Stapleton (The Fifth Province) and the other Hooker went to (appropriately enough since we had just spent two hours and forty minutes watching a movie in which she played a prostitute) Isabelle Huppert.

It was then that it dawned on me that she was the one who had sat next to me for a couple of minutes. I didn’t see our French neighbors again before they left for home, and it may have been just as well. I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell Alain that I had actually had, very briefly, the opportunity to keep my promise to him—and I blew it. (Attended 15 July 2012)