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Isabell Huppert wearing a hijab and flanked by heavies in a supermarket
Photograph: Supplied/AFFFF

Isabelle Huppert plays both sides of the law in The Godmother

The Breaking Bad-like comedy, screening in Australian cinemas now, is an absolute hoot

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

French megastar Isabelle Huppert is a very busy woman. Gorge yourself on Netflix hit Call My Agent, about the gloriously bonkers misadventures of ragtag bunch of agents catering to the out there whims of Parisian movie stars, and you’ll know she steals the third season. Her episode suggests an outré way she keeps up the pace of a career that has seen her star in some 150 films since the early ‘70s. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping celebrity cameos.

While the idea is that each glittering guest from the upper echelons of the French film industry plays an exaggerated version of themselves, there’s always a ring of truth to it. When we speak via Zoom a few short weeks before her latest film The Godmother debuts at the 2021 Alliance Française French Film Festival (AFFFF) in Australia, she casually drops that she has so far shot some four movies since global lockdowns began, including nipping over to Hungary, and to Naples and Rome, to play art philanthropist Costanza Sforza Colonna in Caravaggio’s Shadow.

“I have to say, actors are very, very privileged in this situation,” she says of the organisational hurdles overcome to get them from A to B safely during the madness of last year. “But, you know, the field of actors is always, even in a normal situation, a little bit disconnected from reality.”

A mischievous sparkle in her eyes is recognisable from her roles in OTT films like Elle and Greta glimmers in her wry responses. It’s also there is her leading role in The Godmother (La Daronne). Co-written and directed by Jean-Paul Salomé with Hannelore Cayre, it’s adapted from the latter’s best-selling novel. Huppert plays the spectacularly named Patience Portefeux. Once well-to-do, she was ripped off by her ex-husband, and there are some skeletons in the family closet. Nevertheless, she’s done pretty well for herself with a gig as an Arabic translator for the drug squad.

You can say it’s a comedy, you can say it’s a thriller, but it’s also a portrait of a woman

Unimpressed by the violence she sees the police inflict on the men she helps to interview, Patience is beginning to doubt her role with them when a wild coincidence occurs, linking her day job to Kadidja (Farida Ouchani), the nurse who cares for her mother with dementia (Call My Agent’s Liliane Rovère). Without spoiling too much, let’s just say it leads to her switching sides. She winds up dealing hash in huge quantities while dating the detective on the case (Hippolyte Girardot). Think Breaking Bad, but way funnier.

Huppert loved the novel and jumped at playing Patience. “She’s a great character, actually. You can’t really suspect her of doing such a thing when we first meet her. She’s completely invisible, and all of a sudden, she reveals herself to the audience, what she’s capable of. And there are so many nuances in the story. You can say it’s a comedy, you can say it’s a thriller, but it’s also a portrait of a woman.”

That it is. Of several women, with a very welcome matriarchal team-up between Patience, her daughters, her not entirely above board neighbour Colette (Nadja Nguyen) and Kadidja. “That dimension of the film was really appealing to me, and I hope to the audience,” Huppert says of their delightfully amoral plotting. They are women from very different backgrounds with bills to pay and patriarchal structures to topple. “She never forgets to be generous, and she never forgets people around her.”

Shot in and around the northern suburbs of Paris, parts less well seen on screen, the location work appealed to Huppert. She also relished learning a handful of her lines in Arabic for the role, a job she took very seriously. “It was a long time actually. I was working with my teacher who would send me tapes to go over and over. I only had a few lines to say, but I tried to do it as well as possible.”

You know, I love being on set, otherwise I wouldn’t do it so much

The hints at Patience’s past also bring shades of melancholy to an intriguing role, and it’s great to see her work alongside Rovère. “You can say that one aspect of the film concerns everybody on Earth,” Huppert says. “You are necessarily determined by where you come from, and who were your parents. No matter whether you like them or not.”

Chaotically good, The Godmother is never quite exactly what you think it will be, and neither are any of the characters. “If I can say, they all have a little transcendence, in a way… and this is what I like about [them],” Huppert says.

And as for her turn in Call My Agent, it was directed by good friend Marc Fittousi who worked with her on Previous AFFFF comedy Folies Bergère. How fun was it to take her professional drive and dial it up to manic? “You know, I love being on set, otherwise I wouldn’t do it so much. But Call My Agent is also an exaggeration of a very busy actress. And what I like most about what I created in that character is that she’s also very, very greedy. You know, she doesn’t want to lose one line, and I wasn’t scared at all of going quite far, also in the way she treats the American director. So we had a lot of fun, Marc and me, creating this character who is me, but who is, of course, not me.”

We’ll take all the Hupperts we can get.

The Godmother is in Australian cinemas now.


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