Isabelle Huppert (Actress, Abuse of Weakness)
French cinema is evocative and deeply personal filmmaking. Few French directors’ work can be considered more personal than that of Catherine Breillat. She’s written several bestsellers, both fictional and autobiographical, and translated them to the screen. The controversial themes she explores have been widely praised and criticized—her first film was banned for more than 20 years.
Since 2001, Breillat has won 9 festival awards for her films. Quite an achievement, considering she suffered a stroke in 2004 and has been working her way back to full health ever since. Her most recent film, arguably the most personal of them all, is loosely based on how that struggle made her vulnerable to the famous conman, Christophe Rocancourt, who has been convicted for his crimes against Breillat. The film, Abuse of Weakness, was an official selection at the 51st New York Film Festival and enjoyed an exclusive theatrical run at the Lincoln Center in the summer of 2014.
Breillat cast her friend, legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert, in the lead role of Maud. As Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, “It is hard to imagine that any other actress could muster the stubborn ferocity that Isabelle Huppert brings to the role of Maud.” Huppert has worked with many other greats of French cinema, including Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Her early work in La Dentellière won her the 1978 BAFTA for most promising newcomer in leading film roles. Among numerous other honors since then, she has twice won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and been nominated for a César Award 14 times with 1 win.
At the 51st New York Film Festival, Huppert took part in one of the festival’s Live! sessions, answering questions from the festival’s director of programming, Kent Jones, and the audience. The clips that follow touch on the approach Huppert took to portraying a character so autobiographical for Breillat and her experiences with other notable French directors. Through it all, the instinctiveness of acting for Huppert comes through, as she has difficulty naming any challenges in her work. But a lot of that ease comes from her evident trust in the directors she has worked with and in their visions.
Huppert, who has been friends with Breillat for the last decade and a half, wasn’t shocked when Breillat turned her book on her experience into a screenplay—she’s certainly done it before! Being offered the role was likewise no surprise.
Huppert greatly admires Breillat’s bravery in transforming her personal struggle into stories for multiple mediums. By turning it into fiction, Huppert thinks Breillat brought out the humor in an uncomfortable situation. Using physical weakness as a metaphor also produced distance from Breillat’s own life.
How do you portray your director’s life onscreen? Luckily, Huppert was given the distance from Breillat that she needed to play Maud. There were intended similarities, but the costuming process helped bring Maud to life as her own character without the burden of representing Breillat directly.
The confidence Huppert has in her directors is evident when she admits she views their visions as safe places to play in. For someone afraid of everything, that’s essential! Filmmaking is comfortable for Huppert, a way to explore the world without danger—excepting the physical challenges.
On one film, Claude Chabrol insisted on little interaction between him and the actors. Huppert recounts that unusual stance, which rankled some actors. But she understood that directors also speak through staging, the camera’s framing, and multiple other methods. His rule engendered a free space for the actors to function within that he invisibly controlled.
Meeting Jean-Luc Godard was an adventure of its own. The first time, Huppert was surprised by an unplanned appointment. The second, she picked him up at the airport to be given only one piece of advice on her character: “She is the face of suffering.”
Taking critique isn’t so bad when it comes from a genius like Chabrol. Huppert elaborates on his directorial style, including his desire to rely on actors more than on the other tools of filmmaking. When he called Huppert’s portrayal of a character machinelike, she took the words to heart. From him, she could.