"I am very lazy," Isabelle Huppert says a number of times during our meeting in the elegant Lido Hotel in Venice, a declaration that does not sit well with the packed schedule of the legendary French film star who moves quickly between film sets, theatre stages, film festivals and premieres.
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Huppert who turned 70 last March, is awe-inspiring. She will appear in at least four new films, one of which—Sidonie in Japan—was screened at the Venice Film Festival last July, and tells of a widow who is mourning her husband and embarks on a journey in Japan.
Another film that will be shown at the Haifa Film Festival later this month is The Crime Is Mine, a crime comedy directed by François Ozon, that takes place in the 1930s and tells the story of a broke actress who is accused of murdering a famous producer.
When I ponder how Huppert's claim that she is lazy comports with her schedule and the insane amount of films she has recently participated in, she says she was joking but then explains that she rests as well.
"Like everybody, you know, I stop. I stop and I won't do anything for the next two months after coming back from Japan," she says. "I never really feel like I work actually. So, it's a good way of not feeling super busy. think it's more a way of living than real work for me. It's just it's very easy to do so."
At 70 she is still sought after by leading fashion houses, is courageous and on the lookout for new challenges even if they require her to be physically or mentally exposed. Huppert never shied away from portraying perverted and dark characters nor did she fear filming in dangerous areas like in the Philippines, where an Islamist terror group kidnapped tourists, or in the Amazon Forest, where mosquitos posed a greater danger than the snakes. It is this courage that she continues to exhibit in the roles she plays in two films, now available to Israelis on Hot, Yes and Cellcom TV.
In Mama Weed Huppert plays a police detective in the narcotic unit. Among her duties there, she serves as a translator to and from Arabic. She is struggling to pay her rent and the bill for her elderly mother's care facility so, she decides to deal in drugs herself.
"This is a surprising and unexpected project. I play a female Robin Hood. I did comedies before. It's just that it's probably more difficult to do good comedies. It requires a lot of skill." In the film, Huppert had to use disguises and hang out with a dog. "My dog in the film, he was a good dog and you know it's funny because as we are talking about the dog, I realize that I miss him."
Her role demanded much preparation. Huppert had to learn Arabic but did not want to describe her effort as a challenge. "In each film in a way, you have to learn something and to make it as credible as possible. So, it's always. I wouldn't call it a challenge. I think challenge is too strong of a word for that. Yes, I had to learn. Yes, I studied with a teacher and it was a lot of work and a completely unknown language, not as a listener, but as a speaker. So, it was very difficult indeed. Yes, but I worked as much as I could. And I forgot already."
The second film now available in Israel is Easy Target, another story based on true events that featured in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival last year.
It is the true story of Maureen Kearney, the head union representative of a French multinational nuclear powerhouse who becomes a whistle-blower, denouncing top-secret deals made with China. She fought government ministers and industry leaders, to bring the scandal to light and to defend more than 50,000 jobs. She is threatened and ultimately found tied up in her home after being assaulted. The investigation is carried out under pressure: the subject is sensitive. Suddenly, new elements create doubt in the minds of the investigators. At first a victim, Maureen becomes a suspect.
"I think that the strength of the film is that obviously it's based on a true story and it's a very inspiring one and a very inspiring character. The whole story reveals to her what she is. She is not a feminist. She's not a political woman. She just wants to save jobs, but she wants to save the employment of 50,000 people. So already the task is quite big. It's interesting because she doesn't anticipate what would happen. But it's the story that reveals to her what she is and that's what was interesting for me to do, of course.
"I don't think she's only a strong woman actually. She's been described as a very weak woman. She was an alcoholic. She says that she's weak. She's more like a fragile woman that's what makes her even more striking and moving and touching and also kind of mysterious because you can't define her only as a strong woman. They never found the guilty people and some still don't believe her."
Do you think a man would have been treated the same way? "I don't think a man would have been assaulted like that. They may have been assaulted in a different way but certainly not a sexual assault. It is terrible what Kearney endured. The reason that everything goes wrong is because she is a woman, the nature of the assault and because she is a woman in a man's world and the men have the power. Although you cannot reduce it to a cliché of a woman against men."
Did you spend time with her? She came to the set a couple of times and I met her. Of course, we were inspired by her. She is very inspiring because of her physical appearance, like a Hitchcock heroine, which is very inspiring. And we just copied her all the way and with the glasses, the blonde, the way she's dressed and her earrings."
Huppert was born in Paris to a Jewish father who was a safe engineer and a Catholic mother who was an English teacher and who encouraged her to be an actress. "I grew up in a wealthy home," she once said in an interview. "We never lacked anything. I was the smallest in the family and always got anything I wanted." She studied music and the conservatory and began acting in theatre. In the early 1970s, she landed minor roles in films by well-known directors
Her breakout role was in the 1977 Claud Goretta film La Dentellière. She played Beatrice, a shy introverted hairdresser who meets a student of literature in a coastal town in Normandy, and struggles to fit in with her lover's intellectual crowd, retreats into herself until she is lost. The film was a hit around the world and in Israel as well.
Huppert is known mostly due to her collaboration with Claud Shabrol, with whom she filmed Une Affaire de Femmes, Violette Nozière and Madame Bovary among others. "I had a special relationship with Shabrol who allowed me to invent characters, within boundaries that he had set," she says.
The other director she collaborated with was Austrian Michael Haneke. With him, she appeared in The Piano Teacher, among other projects. That was a controversial and scandalous production. Huppert played a pianist with a weakness for porn and S&M. "Haneke is one of the few directors with whom I could take risks. You know he will protect you and nothing bad will happen to you. Only good."
Huppert also appeared in a Hollywood production in Michael Cimino's 1980 western Heaven's Gate. The film gained notoriety because of its production failures which included re-editing the movie and exceeding the budget so much so that it threatened to bring United Artist Studios to close down. Huppert thinks the film was a masterpiece. "It was first rejected by audiences and critics alike but over the years, people began understanding its greatness," she says.
Neither men nor women are just strong or just weak
During her 50-year-long career, Huppert collected 118 awards. She was twice named best actress at the Cannes Film Festival and in 2016 was nominated for an Oscar for Paul Verhoeven's Elle where she plays a gaming executive who is raped by a stranger and tries to find him and take revenge. The film was slammed for what critics claimed was a mockery of rape.
Do you see a similarity between the characters in Elle and in Easy Target? "Yes. They are both unexpected targets that don't react the way we'd expect."
How do you respond to people who say you are a strong woman? "I don't think you should not embrace this kind of generalization. I think neither of us, men and women, are just strong or just weak. We are a little bit of everything."
Given her busy schedule, not all of her films have maintained a consistent quality.
Do you realize when you're good? "When I'm good and when I'm bad. Yes, I do. But if I am bad, it's because the director is bad," she says.
Huppert has three children from her marriage to Jewish director, screenwriter and producer Ronald Chammah. Her daughter Lolita is an actress herself and the two appeared together in several films. She also made Huppert into a grandmother.
Son Lorenzo runs two movie theatres in Paris the Christian Cinema Club and Equal Cinema Club which Huppert says attracts not only Parisians to see the old movies screened there and although many theatres closed down during the COVID pandemic, Huppert remains optimistic that her son's theatres will continue to thrive.
"It's very comforting. People still want to see old movies on the big screen," she says. "I still have to be optimistic. Otherwise, what I do, I throw myself out the window?" And Yes, she too prefers the experience of watching movies on the big screen. It is much better than on the phone.
You look so amazing. What is your secret? "If I tell you my secret it would not be a secret anymore."