Isabelle Huppert: interview
Actress Isabelle Huppert talks to Time Out about her globetrotting schedule and shooting her new film, ’Private Property‘, with a young director in Belgium
Best known for her work in France with filmmakers such as Claude Chabrol (most recently, ‘A Comedy of Power’), Patrice Chéreau (‘Gabrielle’), François Ozon (‘8 Women’) and, going further back, Jean-Luc Godard and Maurice Pialat, Huppert, who turned 55 last month, has recently been travelling the globe to work. She’s always made the odd film in America – the last was David O Russell’s ‘I Heart Huckabees’ in 2004, which she describes as ‘a failure’, and before that ‘Amateur’ with Hal Hartley in 1994 and Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in 1980 – but last year she was working as far and wide as Cameroon, Cambodia and Bulgaria, all in the space of seven months.
It’s been a busy couple of years? She dismisses the idea of hard work as mere ‘work’ but adds, ‘I guess if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t. When it’s over you realise how much energy you have to get to do all these trips. But beforehand it’s very exciting and as you do it it’s very exciting. I’m glad to be on stage now, to be in Paris for some time.’
She was in Cameroon to shoot ‘White Material’, a film by Claire Denis, the French writer-director of ‘Beau Travail’ and ‘Trouble Every Day’, which will most likely premiere at Cannes next month. ‘It’s the story of a woman who runs a coffee plantation,’ she explains. ‘And her ex-husband lives next door with his wife. Then war erupts. It’s a movie by Claire Denis, so it’s a particular vision of war and family and of the conflict between black and white. It’s very deep.’ To follow that, she travelled to Bulgaria to shoot a film called ‘Home’ with a Swiss filmmaker.
‘Again it takes place in a house, but this time it’s more conceptual. It’s a family that lives in a house near an unused highway, and one day the highway opens and the place becomes unbearable. It’s a metaphor for the family, and instead of leaving they stay there and shut the house up – it’s quite fascinating.’ To complete her odyssey, Huppert flew to Cambodia to shoot an adaptation of Marguerite Dumas’ novel ‘A Dam Against the Pacific’ with Rithy Panh, the Cambodian filmmaker mostly known for documentaries such as his ‘S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine’.
But we’ve met today to talk about a French-language film called ‘Private Property’, which Huppert shot back in 2006. It’s an impressive work: a claustrophobic family drama set in a large, shabby house in the Belgian countryside. Huppert plays Pascale, a middle-aged mother to twentysomething siblings Thierry and François, played by real brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier (Jérémie you may remember as the blond tearaway and young father in the Dardennes’ ‘L’Enfant’). The brothers appear to be in their mid-twenties but they act like teenagers.
Their father is long off the domestic scene – he lives locally with his new partner and a young baby – and behind him he’s left a household in a strange stasis. The two sons treat their mother appallingly. She barely reacts to their abuse, having cast herself in a pathetic, passive role, and there’s something deeply inappropriate about the whole set-up: how many adult sons brush their teeth while their mother showers behind them? There’s no incest in this household, but there are enough strange goings-on for us to suspect it. There’s also a tense atmosphere of latent violence.
The writer and director of the film is a Belgian, Joachim Lafosse, and ‘Private Property’ is his second full-length feature. He sent Huppert the script via the film’s producer, a friend of hers. She read it, ‘really liked it,’ and watched his short film, ‘Folie Privée’. ‘It was very powerful, really impressive, with a real signature of a director.’
We discuss the film’s title, which in French is ‘Nue Propriété’. It’s a legal term that doesn’t lend itself well to translation.‘It means when a house belongs to a child through transmission or inheritance but a parent still has a right to live in the house: they cannot be thrown out. In this case, the mother, my character, has the nue propriété of the house.’ Which may explain the strange relationship between Pascale and her sons, who treat her like a child and abuse her violently when she suggests she may sell the house and they should move on with their lives. Huppert lends a childish vulnerability to the role.
Does she find it refreshing to seek out new talents? ‘Refreshing? No, not really. Any film is refreshing. It’s not a matter of experience or how many films the actor or director did before. It’s a jump into the unknown, whatever the film is.’ But she has an instinct to work with new people?
‘Yeah,’ she says, half-agreeing. ‘But sometimes my instinct is to stop. It’s very difficult to find the right project and to make the right choices. Sometimes you have disappointments.’
Surely, over the years, the disappointments in her career have been few and far between? Twice she has won awards for acting at each of Cannes, Venice and the European Film Awards.
‘Yes, perhaps,’ she hesitates, with characteristic qualification. ‘Over the years.’
‘Private Property’ opens on Friday.
Author: Dave Calhoun
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