One of France's most celebrated actresses appeared in front of a packed crowd at the Walter Reade Theater on July 30 for an extended Q&A moderated by perhaps her number-one American fan—John Waters. A 14-time César Award nominee, Huppert is nevertheless not known for her easily accessible roles. She has played a homicidal post-office worker in Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie, a piano teacher who becomes involved with a burgeoning maestro in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, and a middle-aged mother who has an incestuous relationship with her teenage son in Christophe Honoré's Ma Mère. These are only a sprinkling of her big-screen characters; she is also an accomplished actress on the stage, where she began her career in 1972.
"Doing movies for me is like a vacation," Huppert said at her recent visit at the Film Society. "Stage for me is like climbing a big mountain, and movies for me is like doing a nice little walk… it's really easy for me to make movies… Movies have to be the routine and stage has to be the exception." Huppert's full discussion with Waters is available below. Their conversation followed a screening of her latest film, Abuse of Weakness, by Catherine Breillat.
Abuse of Weakness is inspired by Breillat's true-life experiences. A selection of the 51st New York Film Festival, it's an exploration of power in which Huppert plays Maud, a strong-willed filmmaker who suffers a stroke. Bedridden but determined to pursue her latest movie project, she sees Vilko (Kool Shen), a con man who swindles celebrities, on a TV talk show. Interested in him for her new film, she meets him and soon finds herself falling for his manipulative charm as their symbiotic relationship hurdles out of control.
"Enjoy it as a real cinematic object because this is what Catherine Breillat had in mind [considering] what happened to her and what she went through before doing the film," Huppert told the Walter Reade crowd. "It's her real object of cinema. She's a true filmmaker…"
John Waters interviews Isabelle Huppert at the Walter Reade Theater
Among the highlights of their approximately 45-minute conversation, Waters asked about Huppert's various roles, giving a particular shout-out to her starring turn in Claude Chabrol's Story of Women (1988), for which she won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. Set in occupied France during WWII, Huppert plays a mother and wife whose husband is too weak to work and discovers she can make money terminating pregnancies. "I love abortion movies anyway…," offered up Waters with a devilish laugh, asking if she had any backlash for playing the part. "I didn't get hassled for doing it, but there was some [problems] because of a provocative scene [where my character] says something about the Virgin Mary," said Huppert. "So it still stirs people's minds and agitates narrow-minded people."
Waters, who will be the subject of a complete retrospective beginning next month at the Film Society, also gave kudos to Huppert's performance in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, which in 2001 earned the actress her second Best Actress Award at Cannes (only four actresses have won the prize twice). "Is The Piano Teacher still one of your most extreme movies?" he asked.
Huppert waivered before saying, "Well, yes. It is, but yes and no. I don't think if it had been 'that' extreme, it would have been as successful as it was—but obviously [it's] not a blockbuster… It is provocative, radical, and extreme, but it is a great love story… It's an example of an extreme statement of love and I think that's why it altogether was successful."
Reflecting on the roles she finds appealing, Huppert noted that she gravitates toward playing "survivors" or "victims" who fight for their desires. She also said that she isn't willing to take on just anything, offering up: "I'm not an easy girl." She did note that she worked with late German filmmaker Werner Schroeter in Malina (1991) and Two (2002). "When I think of Werner, I think of you," said Huppert. "When I think of Werner, I think he's the European John Waters and you're the European Werner. He was a great inspiration for many directors…"
Huppert also gave praise to Breillat, who faced down a difficult time in her life and overcame it through her art. "I really admire Catherine, she really lives like nothing had happened and is able to draw the story into a metaphor and overcome this."
[Isabelle Huppert will take part in a Q&A following the 2:10 screening of Abuse of Weakness Sunday, August 17 at the Film Society.]