"You work a lot," I tell French actress Isabelle Huppert, who since 1971 has appeared in close to 100 films and television movies, and has also acted on stage. In fact, hardly a year has gone by in which she did not appear in at least three films. She will be in five movies set to be released this year and next year, among them films by Austrian director Michael Haneke, by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza and by German director Ulrike Ottinger.
"Yes, I work a lot," says Huppert, apparently wondering why that is such a bit deal. "I like to work; I like to act. I'm so lucky be working in something I love; there aren't a lot of people who can say that about what they do. For me, acting is like breathing, otherwise why would I do it? In general, I believe that an actress' work is not just about being in front of a camera or on stage. I act all the time, even when I'm not working."
What she means is that she uses the two most important tools at her disposal as an actress - the ability to observe the world, and also to ponder it and the people in it - even when she is not appearing on screen or stage.
"I see my life and my work not as two separate things," she explains, "rather as two parts of the same thing which are directly connected."
Despite Huppert's heavy work load, she found time to visit Israel as a guest of the 2011 Tel Aviv French Film Festival, which is now under way, together with her husband, Ronald Chammah, a Lebanese-born Jew, who in 1987 directed one of her films. The last time she visited Israel was in 1991 with French director Claude Chabrol, for the screening of his version of "Madame Bovary," the Gustave Flaubert novel. That was the first time I met her.
In our conversation, Huppert, 58. emerges as a very intelligent, serious and focused interviewee. Just as on the big screen, I could have gazed at her face for hours. Her face has aged, just like the rest of ours have, but it is still as expressive and alive as ever. She is petite, as the French say, and is wearing tight jeans, a sweater and a scarf around her neck. She is tired after having landed in Israel a few hours earlier, and at the end of our conversation asks if the fatigue made her sound confused. No, I reassure her.
Huppert arrived in Israel for the screening at the festival of a documentary about her, and of a film in which she appears - "Copacabana," by director Marc Fitoussi (which will open in local theaters this coming weekend ). More light-hearted than most of the movies Huppert usually appears in, "Copacabana" is very likable - thanks, among other things, to her presence - and tells the story of Babou, a woman whose far more conservative daughter is embarrassed by her nonconventional behavior and refuses to invite her mother to her wedding. Her pride wounded, Babou decides to prove her daughter wrong and show that can be a responsible person if need be, and goes off to the Belgian seaside to work for a company selling time-sharing apartments to tourists.
"I agreed to be in this film after I read the script," says Huppert, "and Babou's character appealed to me. I realized it was a comedy, but not just any comedy - one that also has something to say about the social and economic conditions in which the story takes place. Babou is an endearing character, I have not often had the chance to portray such characters before, she explains, smiling.
"Not that this was why I chose to appear in the film. The desire to endear one's self to viewers is not really a guideline that I use for choosing a role. But Babou is a sweet and generous woman filled with a passion for life and I wanted to play her. Also, I liked the director. He has a good eye, he is refined and understands the nature of man."
Babou's daughter in the film is played by Huppert's real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah, 27, who is accompanying her mother on her Israel visit. How did they get to act together?
"Actually it was the opposite of what you think happened," explains Huppert. "Lolita appeared in an earlier film by Fitoussi, not a feature length one, and when Fitoussi suggested she star in 'Copacabana,' she suggested I appear in the role of her mother."
The two women, incidentally, have already appeared together - in Chabrol's "Une affaire de femmes" ("Story of Women," 1988 ), when Lolita was four years old. They also acted together in Laurence Ferreira Barbosa's 2000 film, "La Vie Moderne" ("Modern Life" ), but did not have any joint scenes in it.
In a conversation I had with Fitoussi in Paris in January, the director noted that when Huppert's name was mentioned, he thought that someone of her caliber - who had worked with some of the world's leading filmmakers - would surely not agree to star in a film by a novice director, and especially in the role of a genial and vivacious woman.
"Huppert has appeared in comedies," Fitoussi told me at the time, "but I had a feeling, at least based on her latest work, that she prefers to act in more serious films. The role of Babou demanded a lot of spontaneity from her. I thought Huppert's method as an actress is more intellectual."
He acknowledged, of course, that he was mistaken.
'Fluttering in a net'
Over the course of her career, Huppert has indeed worked with some of the best directors: Claude Sautet; Bertrand Tavernier; Claude Goretta; Andre Techine; Maurice Pialat; Joseph Losey; Jean Luc Godard; Diane Kurys; brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; Olivier Assayas; Francois Ozon; Patrice Chereau and many others. She has previously worked with Haneke three times; her role in his 2001 film "The Piano Teacher" earned her the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival that year. She has made seven films with Chabrol; the first time they worked together was in "Violette Noziere," for which she won the best actress award in 1978 at Cannes. Her performances in Chabrol's "Women's Story" and "La Ceremonie" earned her the best actress awards at the 1996 Venice Film Festival (in the latter film, she shared the prize with her costar, Sandrine Bonnaire ). Huppert's performance in "La Ceremonie," one of Chabrol's best works, also earned her a Cesar prize. She reveals now that she and Chabrol were planning to collaborate on another film, based on a book by Georges Simenon, before Chabrol's unexpected death last September.
Given your many years of experience, weren't you hesitant about working with a director [like Fitoussi], doing his first feature film?
Huppert: "Not at all. From the very beginning, I knew that Fitoussi knows exactly what he wants to do in the film and also how to go about doing it. As an actress, you develop different relationships with different directors. There is only a problem when you try to establish a connection with the director in which you try to get something from him and don't get what you expected."
Fitoussi also says that working with Huppert was easy and pleasant. The film was a hit in France. Some 350,000 people have seen it and he believes that Huppert was one of the reasons for its success - the audience enjoyed seeing her in a more light-hearted role.
How do you build a character: from the inside out or from the outside in, as many actors say? In the case of Babou, for example, was her flashy way of dressing a key to shaping the character?
"I don't have a method. As a rule, acting is very different from any other kind of work where it is clear what you must do and must not do. It's a very mysterious process, which involves a great deal of thinking - but it's thinking about the character and thinking about the director, which for me starts before the shooting and continues while I enact the role. Of course, the way a character looks or dresses are important factors in shaping the character, but it is part of the actor's work; it's like shaving off the outside of a piece of wood and fashioning a sculpture from it. The moment that stage is over, the moment the basis for the character is in place, then the real work begins.
"Of course, there are also cases where I needed to prepare myself well before the shooting. In the case of 'The Piano Teacher,' I took piano lessons for a year. I didn't become a pianist, but I wanted the scenes where I play to look credible. When you act, you turn into the character you are playing, but you must also constantly remember that the character you are playing does not exist in real life. It is an invention. Contrary to the statement that you become the character you are playing, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character is transformed into the actor or actress who is playing him or her."
What attracts you to a specific role?
"I am less drawn to the roles that are offered to me and more to the director who is to direct the film, because he will be the one who looks at this character, the one whose vision will determine how the character will be shaped on screen. It is possible that an interesting role is offered, but if the given director of the film is not someone I respect or someone that I know that I can work with in an interesting and productive manner - I will reject the offer."
You worked with Claude Chabrol more than any other director. What was it like?
"Claude was like an anthropologist. The characters in his films would flutter about in a net. But within that net, Claude would allow the actor freedom to do as he pleased, to turn go in one direction or another. He was in total control of his films ... but the more you surprised him as an actor, the happier he was because this would intensify the complexity of the character. He seemed to be observing events from above, watching from a distance. In this respect, he actually did resemble Flaubert."
You also perform frequently on stage. Does that help fulfill a different need of yours as an actress?
"Not exactly, but it provides me with another opportunity and it is a wonderful one. It enables me to participate in a different type of adventure. The best theatrical experience I had was my work with director Robert Wilson."
Huppert has also appeared in several American films, among them Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" (1980 ), which, although it was a huge box-office flop and was trashed by most critics, is now considered by many, myself included, to be an exemplary work.
"Approximately once every seven years, I'm overcome with a desire to appear in an American film. It doesn't work out, but the desire is there, because you work there with outstanding directors. I'm proud that I was in 'Heaven's Gate.'"
Recently you even appeared in an episode of "Law and Order." How did that happen?
"I was in New York and the show's producer contacted me and said they were willing to write an episode for me. I read the script and agreed."
What role did you play?
"Oh, it was a terrible story about a mother whose kids are kidnapped by her ex-husband. And there is a murder, of course. Terrible," Huppert says and shudders, half-jokingly.
You've worked with so many important directors. Is there anyone left that you would still like to work with?
"I'd like to do a film in Israel!" Huppert answers enthusiastically. "In the last few years, I have seen many excellent Israeli films. Of course, I haven't seen them all. But I'd like to do a film here."
Isabelle Huppert, one of the greatest contemporary actresses, wants to do a film in Israel. Can there be a more optimistic note on which to end an interview? If there is, it is beyond me.