Both nemisis and victim

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When I meet Isabelle Huppert, the French actress is in London to give an interview at the National Film Theatre as part of a season of her films. One highlight is a new print of Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, in which Huppert dumps her boring husband for a bit of fun with Gérard Depardieu.

The season is also tied to the release of her latest film, Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle, where she is married to boring Pascal Greggory, and unexpectedly returns home to him after a brief fling.

It may come as a surprise, outside France, to appreciate how highly she is regarded in her own country.

She has made few films in the US – the first was Michael Cimino’s ill-fated western Heaven’s Gate, hardly an auspicious debut – and she is known in the UK only through the select number of French films that reach British screens.

Her reputation in France is also enhanced by her work in the theatre. She is appearing in Paris at the moment in Quartet, a play by the German dramatist Heiner Müller based on Les Liaisons dangereuses which is enjoying considerable success.

She manages to be in London on a Monday evening because Monday is a rest day for French theatres.

In 35 years and nearly 100 films, she has developed a distinctive, rather ambivalent screen personality, a mixture of coldness and passion, vulnerability and resilience, strength and suffering, which often tends to be found threatening by (masculine) society.

Both nemesis and victim, she regularly plays women who are punished for overstepping the bounds of bourgeois respectability. It is not surprising that Claude Chabrol chose her for his Madame Bovary.

Huppert says the persistence of such roles in her career probably derives from something in her nature, as well as her taste for ambivalence: “I think that it’s easier, quite honestly.

Not that I want to minimise what I do, but I find it simpler to suggest a whole lot of possibilities than just to choose one. I prefer not to come down on one side or the other, not to say that a character is like this, or like that, but to be constantly in a kind of interspace, shifting the audience away from expectations and blurring the edges.”

Gabrielle, her character in the new film, is recognisably one of these Huppert women. When Chéreau offered her the part, he asked her not to read the novella by Joseph Conrad from which it is adapted.

Conrad’s story, The Return, describes how a businessman arrives home from work to find a note from his wife announcing that she is leaving him for another man.

He has hardly had time to digest this news when she reappears, with no explanation either for her infidelity or for her return. Indeed, for much of Conrad’s story, she is a silent presence, observed entirely from the viewpoint of her husband. She is not even given a name.

Chéreau and his screenwriter, Anne-Louise Trividic, transpose the action from London to Paris while retaining roughly the same turn-of-the-last-century period as Conrad’s novella.

The director’s most important departure is the way in which he enhances the role of the wife, giving her a much more active part in the development of the narrative.

As Huppert explains, “the dominant idea in the film, apart from the idea of separation, is one of transfer from the man to the woman, as though she was taking his strength and he was taking her fragility: there is a kind of inversion of roles which I find very interesting”.

Both for Conrad and for Chéreau, the story is a fable of the battle of the sexes. But where for Conrad the woman’s chief weapon was silence and passivity, in the film she assumes control of what is happening.

“The end is strange: it is as though she had taken on his strength and also some of his cynicism,” says Huppert, finding her character’s behaviour in many ways quite cruel.

“The woman is the bearer of a certain ferocity, including a ferocious instinct for survival.” In brief, in this character from Conrad’s story, as it develops in Chéreau’s adaptation, she rediscovers the essential Huppert woman, one who “shrinks from nothing”.

Despite the recurrence of certain kinds of role, she has always been willing to experiment: from the zany Hollywood comedy I Heart Huckabees (“not the best thing I’ve done”) to Christophe Honoré’s adaptation of Georges Bataille’s novel Ma mère, where she plays a mother who sets out to debauch her son.

Again, she is not sure that the film was a total success (“in literature you can do a lot of things that can’t be done in the same way in the cinema”) but Honoré’s film was a challenge – “any film is a gamble on the unknown . . . Cinema is concerned with the future, television with the present”. She holds out one arm pointing upwards for the future, the other straight out, to show the flatness of television.

She has certain favourite directors, particularly Chabrol. “Those you most enjoy working with are the ones who like you most, who are attentive to you and interested in you as a whole.

This is more or less what I feel with Chabrol: I was very lucky to meet him. I have the impression that he is interested in everything about me: he takes everything I give him.

Of course, he uses it, but discriminatingly. With him, I can be uniquely myself.”

She has released another two films since Gabrielle, with a further two in post-production and two more in the pipeline, so she has no shortage of work, even though she is approaching the age when actresses complain that there are fewer good parts.

She is strikingly articulate, friendly and unaffected; and, given the busy life she leads, manages to suggest a remarkable degree of cool.

When the interview ends, she heads off for an appointment with the hairdresser across the road, in preparation for the evening’s appearance at the NFT.

It’s not every film star you could catch having her hair done in Monmouth Street.

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