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Isabelle Huppert on playing ‘difficult’ characters, being a Godard ‘orphan,’ and doing the ‘Spaghetti Dance’ in the Philippines

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 27, 2022 5:00 am

More than most other actresses you could name, Isabelle Huppert has always seemed like she does exactly what she wants to do.

In her case, that has meant working with the most esteemed directors in the world—including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jean Renoir, Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Francois Ozon; and even outside France with Paul Verhoeven (Elle, a Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated role), Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate), David O. Russell (the demented I Heart Huckabees) and Brillante Mendoza (2012’s Captive).

Where Isabelle Huppert sits now is Greenbelt 3’s My Cinema, reserved for the 25th French Film Festival. It’s also the 75th anniversary of French-Philippines relations, so the festival (concluding Oct. 30) has much resonance. Huppert stars in two new films showing this year—A Propos de Joan and Les Promesses (“Two films is not a lot,” she jokes)—and she graciously sits down for not one, but two media Q&A sessions (ably moderated by huge fan Sarge Lacuesta).

Sarge Lacuesta moderates the talk with Isabelle Huppert at Greenbelt Cinemas last Saturday.

First things first. No, Ms. Huppert is not dedma, or standoffish, despite the impression some of her characters might give onscreen. “You play characters who are often difficult to love,” notes Lacuesta. “What makes you choose these difficult characters?”

Huppert pushes back a bit: “Yeah, I often hear that they are not easy characters or persons to like. I think of it as the characters’ situations are the consequences of certain social or political or personal situations, and in order to survive that, sometimes the only way is just to be not very nice.”

There’s an internal reality that Huppert conveys, whether it’s the mentally unbalanced instructor in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, or the steely, steadfast victim of rape who turns the tables in Elle, or young prostitute Isabelle, observing the inner workings of patriarchal society in Godard’s Every Man for Himself. Godard, who recently passed away and worked with the actress twice, said he liked that he “could see her thinking” onscreen.

“Well, I guess you can say that about other actors, too,” she observes when I mention this. “Maybe he meant that cinema is a very deep and faithful media in a way, and it really captures something from the most inner part of yourself, not only the surface, but also that's what thinking is about: what’s inside.”

Godard “was very interested in actors—by faces—and he was inspired by life, and he wanted his films to show this,” she says. For her, “When he was going to pass away, I thought that we would maybe feel a little bit like orphans. And that's the case.”

Isabelle Huppert: “The idea of cinema is something you have to sustain, to keep alive, because you can lose it very easily.”

While saying she has “no plans” as of yet to reunite with director Mendoza or work in the Philippines again, you can tell she’s open to any possibilities. She’s here, after all. “I had a wonderful experience here. I was very happy at the time to do this film with Brillante, I had an incredible experience. I think very few European actresses have the luck to do a movie in the Philippines, so that’s my view.”

Les Promesses (2022)

One journalist reminds her of the Spaghetti Song dance she did during the shoot, which elicits a warm smile. Seeing the world as an actress— taking it in— has always been part of the plan. “Well, I’ve always meant to travel and to make foreign films. It's always been my idea of being an actress — traveling and meeting other actors and directors from all over the world. So that's what I tried to accomplish ever since I started being an actress.”

A Propos De Joan is a slightly different Huppert from what we’ve seen: usually, she is a person we observe, in all her minute movements and expressions; not someone who breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera directly.

A Propos De Joan (2022)

My wife Therese Jamora-Garceau asks about her approach for this role, and her acting approach in general: “This film is quite special, because it's really scattered over several times of her life and, of course, it gave me a lot of freedom because it explores memory—but memory as real memory as well as imaginary memory. It was really interesting to have this kind of fragmented portrayal of the character. And it gives a lot of freedom, in a way, to create.”

But she denies there’s any one method to approaching the job: “I don't really have a notion of a character. You know, most of the time people speak about dramas and comedies and have this kind of separation between certain types of things. It's not my way of viewing things, because even in dramas sometimes, you know, a little bit of comedy and drama, you have drama in comedies, and so it's just… acting.”

One journalist asks if she has any advice for a new generation of actors. “I’m not good at giving advice,” she says, to laughs. “I'm not old enough to advise. But be curious. Yeah. Just read, and see films a lot. I think the idea of cinema is something you have to sustain, to keep it alive, you know, because you can lose it very easily, in a way. Sometimes you speak to very young people and you realize that, yeah, they have very little knowledge of certain films. So you have to keep this memory alive, of cinema.”

And with several new films showing, that’s exactly what this tireless, curious, iconic actress part is doing here in the Philippines.

Screening of ‘Captive’ reunites cast and director

On a side note, Ms. Huppert and director Brillante Mendoza reunited for a screening last Monday at Greenbelt Cinema 1 of his 2012 film Captive, a grueling recounting of the Dos Palmas kidnapping by Abu Sayyaf members. It was something to see Huppert there in the audience with the director, not to mention French Ambassador to the Philippines Michèle Boccoz and other French Embassy officials.

Brillante Mendoza’s Captive (2012)

Mendoza’s film, shot in Palawan a decade ago, is still very raw and wrenching. She plays Thérèse Bourgoine, the French missionary abducted by Abu Sayyaf: every moment of her character’s trauma, her unsettled faith, her shifting feelings towards her captors and co-hostages and life itself is openly read in her face.

Prior to the screening, French Embassy audiovisual attaché Martin Macalintal noted it was a minor miracle that such a film could have been made, 10 years ago: “This is a film that was co-produced between France and the Philippines, even without a co-production agreement between our two countries.”

Now, he continued, “as announced by the chairman of the Film Development Council in the Philippines, the Philippine government is now on its way to ratify the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity. And once that is done, the French CNC (Centre National du Cinéma) and FDCP can sign a co-production agreement between our two countries, which will facilitate the making of more movies between our two countries.”

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The 25th French Film Festival concludes Sunday, Oct. 30, at Greenbelt 3 Cinemas. Visit https://ph.ambafrance.org/-English- for schedule information.