Isabelle Huppert: La Belle Époque

·10-min read
Isabelle Huppert by Louie Banks and ES Magazine |   BALENCIAGA A-Line Coat in white faux fur, £5,250 (balenciaga.com). PIERRE CARDIN Evolution sunglasses, £250, Pierre Cardin, 83 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris    (Isabelle Huppert by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
Isabelle Huppert by Louie Banks and ES Magazine | BALENCIAGA A-Line Coat in white faux fur, £5,250 (balenciaga.com). PIERRE CARDIN Evolution sunglasses, £250, Pierre Cardin, 83 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris (Isabelle Huppert by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

There is a noise Isabelle Huppert makes when she wants to communicate some - thing for which she can’t find the words. It’s a sharp noise, like a Kit Kat snapping, made by the tongue hitting the roof of the mouth, and it shall be rendered through - out this interview as ‘clack’.

The first Huppert clack comes seconds after we meet, on a warm July evening in a hotel in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. Removing her sun - glasses and settling on to the sofa, the legendary French actress orders a white wine and ‘some clack’, which our waiter correctly interprets to mean ‘olives and nuts and things’. During the course of our conversation, however, the clack takes on deeper meaning. Example: discussing whether the roles she plays stay with her after filming, Huppert says, ‘Maybe the characters stay in you. But as a thought, not like an invader that would’ — she mimes stran - gulation — ‘clack’. Another, on female film directors: ‘For women, you deal with the work, but you deal with everything else, too. There’s a sense you have to’ — she spins several invisible plates — ‘clack’.

You might assume this clacking is due to our interview being conducted in English. After all, as Huppert points out, ‘You’re a slightly different person when not speaking your own language.’ But she clacks in French, too, slipping in and out of her mother tongue as the whim takes her, occasionally relying on that little noise to express the inexpressible.

Louie Banks and ES Magazine |  BALENCIAGA mermaid dress, £5,690; wire brass earrings, £750, (balenciaga.com). LAURENCE BOSSION felt hat, £345, Laurence Bossion, 10 Rue Saint Roch, 75001, Paris. GOOSSENS Cabochon rings, £228 (goossensparis.com). SAMUEL FRANÇOIS goldened brass ring, £400 (samuelfrancois jewelry.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
Louie Banks and ES Magazine | BALENCIAGA mermaid dress, £5,690; wire brass earrings, £750, (balenciaga.com). LAURENCE BOSSION felt hat, £345, Laurence Bossion, 10 Rue Saint Roch, 75001, Paris. GOOSSENS Cabochon rings, £228 (goossensparis.com). SAMUEL FRANÇOIS goldened brass ring, £400 (samuelfrancois jewelry.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

It’s fitting, really, since Huppert’s USP as an actress has always been characters who defy comprehension, whose actions cannot easily be explained. The people she portrays don’t behave in the way we expect humans to behave. They are impossible to understand and impossible to take your eyes off. In Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, for which she won a Golden Globe and secured an Oscar nomination, she plays a woman who enters into a relationship with her rapist. In Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which bagged her a Best Actress gong at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, she juggles classical music recitals with self-mutilation and visits to peep shows. Even in her breakout role as the titular teenage sex worker in 1978’s Violette Nozière, that detached inscrutability is already there, fully formed. In one scene, a judge expresses desperation to understand Violette’s motives for poisoning her parents. Huppert looks at him blankly and responds: ‘There is nothing to understand.’ Or in other words: ‘clack.’

‘It’s true, I like to blur the border between “good” and “bad”,’ she says, as the olives and nuts arrive. ‘I find that more provocative. I don’t try to make [characters] better or more lovable. That’s what Haneke and certainly Paul Verhoeven found in me, I think: I have no problem with the darker sides of stories.’ Far from being ‘dark’ in person, however, Huppert is sparkling company. Dressed in a plain white T-shirt and black trousers, her orange iPhone case nearly matching her copper-coloured hair, the ‘second-best actor of the 21st century’ (just shy of Denzel Washington, according to The New York Times) is great value on everything from the difference between Londoners and Parisians (‘you guys are also bitchy, but in a different way!’) to the superbly bonkers Balenciaga bodysuit she wore at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (‘It was like a green screen costume! But so comfortable, so easy to wear’). More than anything, though, Huppert is absolutely, disarmingly hilarious. At one point I ask whether, after five decades of critically lauded performances, she has anything left to achieve. Her hand flies to her chest in mock hysteria: ‘Of course! What, you want me to kill myself?!’

We are meeting to discuss the latest addition to her long, long filmography (more than 100 movies and counting) — a bright ’n’ breezy 1950s-set remake of the 1992 Angela Lansbury comedy Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. It stars the ever-excellent Lesley Manville as a bubbly cockney cleaner whose dream is to visit the French capital and buy a Christian Dior dress. Standing firmly in the way of said dream is Huppert as the ultra-snooty Dior director, Claudine. The film is great fun, and Huppert is clearly hav - ing a ball playing a spiky Parisian stereotype, but it is a world away from the complex art-house fare for which she’s best known. Was surprising people part of the appeal? ‘No, I didn’t do it to surprise,’ she says. ‘I did it because it was funny and nice to do. I liked the script and the fashion element, and Lesley is wonderful. Yes, the movie is light, but there is also depth to it.’

Louie Banks and ES Magazine | MARC JACOBS dress, £1,475, at bergdorfgoodman.com. JULINE DARDE GERVAIS Unique headdress, POA (julinedardegervais.com). CARTIER Panthère de Cartier small gold ring  with tsavorite garnets, £5,800; large gold ring with peridots, onyx, £24,200 (cartier.com). CHANEL earrings £690 (Chanel.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
Louie Banks and ES Magazine | MARC JACOBS dress, £1,475, at bergdorfgoodman.com. JULINE DARDE GERVAIS Unique headdress, POA (julinedardegervais.com). CARTIER Panthère de Cartier small gold ring with tsavorite garnets, £5,800; large gold ring with peridots, onyx, £24,200 (cartier.com). CHANEL earrings £690 (Chanel.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

Indeed, for a film that appears fluffy and frothy on the surface, Mrs Harris features a surprising amount of political subtext. Workers’ rights are championed throughout, and one scene finds Manville’s Mrs H cheerily organising a strike in the Dior workshop. Huppert draws a comparison between the film and her 1995 thriller, La Cérémonie, which, if you’ve not seen, you would be well advised to seek out. For this writer’s money, it is not only the best Isabelle Huppert performance, but possibly the best performance by anyone in anything, ever. She plays an utterly psychotic — yet some - how incredibly lovable and funny — postmistress who seeks revenge against her bourgeois neighbours. ‘Claude Chabrol [La Cérémonie’s director] called it a “Marxist film”,’ Huppert notes. ‘You can say the same with Mrs Harris! [Manville’s] character is rejected because she is not part of the elite. The movie says a lot about social categories.’

Huppert has arrived to promote the film straight from shooting another, the French drama Sidonie au Japon, ‘which deals with ghosts’. Her hectic schedule is the stuff of legend: she even gamely sent it up in an episode of the hit French series Call My Agent, playing herself as a tireless workaholic, filming one movie in the daytime and another at night. ‘I pushed that idea even further [than it was in the script]’, she chuckles. ‘I said: “Let’s make her greedier, she wants more dialogue in the films, too!”’ It was an exaggeration, and a very funny one but still: since the early Seventies, Huppert has made on average two or three films a year, and that’s without factoring in her numerous theatre and TV roles. She does, to put it mildly, a hell of a lot.

She laughs when I tell her as much. ‘I don’t “do a lot” — I just do. I would love to do more. With acting, I always feel like I’m doing it for the first time. That’s a marvellous feeling. You are never bored. And I’m very curious, that’s for sure. I like to... clack’. She mimes digging her fingernails in; getting to the heart of a character.

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Louie Banks and ES Magazine | SPORTMAX Coat,£1,085; blazer, £770; shirt, £220; trousers, £320 (sportmax.com). FALKE, socks, £12 (falke.com). LOUIS VUITTON loafers, £905 (louisvuitton. com). CARTIER Panthère de Cartier yellow gold ring, £5,800; Clash de Cartier rose gold ring, £1,930; Trinity ring in white, rose and yellow gold, £1,210 (cartier.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

The joy she gets from her work is evident, but part of what makes Huppert so likable in person is how comically blasé she is about the actual process of acting. You’ll get no luvvie-esque monologues about the ‘Stanislavski method’ from her: she simply clocks in, does the work and heads off to the next gig. ‘There’s such a mythology about actors,’ she sighs. ‘But it’s just a job, you know? It’s not something I think about. I just do it.’

During the first Covid lockdown she binged Netflix’s The Crown (‘The acting, the writing... Oh, it’s fantastic! I watched it every day’) and doing more TV is something that appeals to her. She has a project in the pipeline but can’t discuss it yet. She has also, she notes, ‘never made a film in England. That’s something I’d like to do. Who doesn’t want to work with Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh? You have so many great directors.’ How about a part in the next James Bond film, I suggest? She raises her wine glass: ‘I should be the next James Bond!’ She is possibly only half joking. ‘Really! You can have a female Hamlet, so why not a female James Bond?’ She takes a sip and grins. ‘Actually, maybe it would be more fun to play the villain...’

At this point, Huppert’s orange iPhone vibrates with a text. As she reads it, I am reminded that I have just received an email from the ES team with a few stills from her photo shoot, which took place yesterday. I pass my phone across to show her and she hoots in delight. ‘Oh my God! I love it! Oh, we had fun. The photographer was so cool.’ What with her Balenciaga ‘green screen’ outfit at Cannes, and the brilliantly wild shoot displayed on these pages, does she feel she gets more experimental with fashion as she gets older? ‘Kind of, yeah,’ she nods. ‘It wasn’t really my clack earlier on. But with someone like Demna [Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga], for instance, I love it because he plays with classical codes to make something new.’ So, when she was shown that green all-in-one number, she was immediately into wearing it? ‘Oh yes!’ she cries. ‘It was a real statement!’ This, I’m learning, is Isabelle Huppert’s reaction to most things she does in life: all in, headfirst, utterly fearless.

Louie Banks and ES Magazine |  EGON LAB silk satin dress, POA (egonlab.com). CHANEL earring, metal and tweed, £620; earring, metal and resin, £475 (chanel. com). ANNELISE MICHELSON PARIS cuffs, £880 (annelisemichel - son.com). CARTIER Panthère de Cartier yellow gold necklace, £28,300; yellow gold ring, £24,200 (cartier.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
Louie Banks and ES Magazine | EGON LAB silk satin dress, POA (egonlab.com). CHANEL earring, metal and tweed, £620; earring, metal and resin, £475 (chanel. com). ANNELISE MICHELSON PARIS cuffs, £880 (annelisemichel - son.com). CARTIER Panthère de Cartier yellow gold necklace, £28,300; yellow gold ring, £24,200 (cartier.com) (Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

As our time draws to a close, I ask about the future. Having won pretty much every acting award going, does she have any interest in directing? ‘No,’ she says, firmly. ‘I am very lazy. You have to make decisions as a director and I am completely decide-o-phobe.’ She sips her wine and reconsiders. ‘Actually, maybe one day I would direct. The only reason I would do it is to film my daughter.’

The eldest of her three children with her film producer husband, Ronald, Huppert’s daughter Lolita Chammah is an actress, too — the pair have appeared together in several French films. ‘The first time we worked together it was really difficult because we could not stop laughing,’ Huppert recalls with a smile. ‘We had a hard time settling down.’ Away from film sets, they don’t talk much about work, though: ‘I don’t give her advice, or anything. It’s more... clack.’ She twirls her fingers, suggesting telepathy, communication without words. ‘So maybe I’d like to direct her. But it requires such courage and empathy to direct. And for women, especially, there’s a sense that you must cope with many other topics as well as the work. But maybe that’s changing.’

I wonder aloud if she feels things have changed for women in general within the industry since the #MeToo movement. She switches to French to answer. ‘I think the real changes [with that movement] will be felt in the years ahead. We don’t know what they will be yet. It is only the beginning. But that movement is so important and it doesn’t just concern cinema, or the more famous cases of harassment. It’s a movement that will fundamentally change the position of women throughout the world in the years to come. I really believe that.’

With that, it’s time to go. It’s late and, as always, Huppert has work tomorrow. We part with a Covid-friendly fist bump and she wanders homewards. The long day is over and another will be along in the morning. But then, that’s the way she likes it. Isabelle Huppert doesn’t do a lot. She just does.

‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’ opens in cinemas on 30 Sep

Photographer: Louie Banks

Stylist: Jonathan Huguet

Set Design: Manon Everhard  

Hair: Michael Delmas

Make-up: Morgane Martini

Manicure: Eri Narita