She might be best known for her darker explorations of sex and sexuality (not least in her iconic turn as a masochistic piano teacher for frequent collaborator, austere Austrian Michael Haneke), but Isabelle Huppert does enjoy lightening up occasionally. She’s just choosy about how and when she does so.
“I always hear people say, ‘You do less comedies’, and ‘We like you so much in comedies, why don’t you do more?’,” she laughs, when we sit for a chat in a chic suite at the Hotel de Louvre in Paris. “It’s all part of this cliché of an actress who should do more comedies because the people want it. It’s very difficult to do good, really good comedy. In general, it’s easier to find good dramatic material than good comic material.”
“But I’m not very fond of these kind of classifications and most of the time it crosses borders because you can find drama in comedies and you can find comedy in dramas as well. You wouldn’t expect it to be so, but The Piano Teacher had comic moments... occasionally! I’m not - as the public seems to be – obsessed with this partition between comedies and dramas. For me it’s more about working with great directors. That’s really what it is all about.”
Fortunately, she’s found a willing accomplice in Marc Fitoussi, a writer/director with a wide cheeky grin, who last cast Huppert as a new age mum made-over as a dodgy realtor palming off timeshares in Belgium, in 2009’s wry comedy Copacabana. They’ve now teamed up again to put the culture back into agriculture, with Huppert playing a proud cattle farmer who sneaks off to the city to sow some wild oats, in Folies Bergère.
“It is a really good comedy, which for me is not ‘just’ a comedy,” Huppert explains. “The subtleness of it, the depth of it makes that much more, you know.”
In Folies Bergère, Huppert plays Brigitte, a woman with a fierce determination to buck the stereotype of a dowdy ‘farmer’s wife’. Her skills at birthing a cow prove her mettle as a capable woman of the land but she also happens to be a little bit fancy; she wears a fox fur topper to the cattleyard, and dresses up the prizewinning heifer’s noggin with a bit of bling (a tiara) for its photo op (…and shrugs when her brusque husband ditches it almost instantly).
Brigitte is itching to do/be more than just a ‘shepherd girl’, and a sizeable patch of eczema across her décolletage makes that point plain. When a group of students rent an adjacent cottage for a few days, a handsome hunk with a sideways-smirk strikes up a conversation and they engage in some low-level flirtation. The spark is so intense that the next day Brigitte matter-of-factly books herself a weekend in Paris with her sights set on a spot of shopping - and an impromptu, glorious affair.
Suffice it to say, things don’t go quite as well as she’d hoped when her much-younger prince falls well short of charming. A third gentleman caller enters the picture, and offers to help her get a few things off her burning chest.
Fitoussi admits he has limited experience of the land, beyond an occasional spell at a friend’s parents’ country house. But he says the idea for Folies Bergère stemmed from “wanting to tell a story about rural world because in cinema it’s not so well represented”.
“I realised that actually, in the rural world, people are extremely modern and farmers are actually just like a company managers. Whereas in the cinema, the usual way the rural world is depicted is full of clichés about it being this old fashioned world belonging to the past.”
Huppert says she particularly liked the way the movie inverts the idea of “fresh air”: “Marc roots the characters in an environment that is normally seen for Parisian people - or urban people generally - as an open space and it’s the complete opposite.
“Usually you come from the town and take some fresh air in the country. In this case, she’s in the country and she wants to take fresh air among the cars and the people in the urban environment. I thought it was a nice paradox.”
Brigitte’s eye starts to wander in the wake of years spent in the marital wilderness with her husband Xavier (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), and Fitoussi cites the American remarriage comedies of the '40s as his chief influence - and in particular, Stanley Donen’s 1967 romantic comedy drama Two For the Road. In that, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are a couple on a road trip through the south of France encountering a few metaphorical potholes along the way and it very clearly set a template for Folies Bergère.
“The movie plays on several layers,” Huppert says. “Superficially, it can be seen as a comedy, a light comedy, but underneath it has some kind of depth to it, It’s very sensitive,” says Huppert. Still, she says she found playing Brigitte a bit of a challenge, given “she’s a very nice person first of all, but it’s always very difficult to portray a nice person, in an interesting way, on screen. A ‘Nice’ person can also be boring”.
That said, she found her niche in Brigitte’s edginess: “I think she’s a free spirit in a way. She has no guilt about what she’s doing; at some point she wants to do what she wants and she does it and she doesn’t care. By doing that she doesn’t even question herself.”
Huppert’s preferred way ‘into’ a character is via the costumes, and Folies Bergère was no exception.
“That’s one of the most important things for me,” she says. “There’s not a lot we rehearsed in advance, certainly the birth of this little veal was not something we could do various ways! The preparation for a role most of the time is very mental, you just think – a lot – about it.
“It’s very nice! You don’t have anything to do, you just have to lie down in your bed and think about it. Then it starts to infuse and fill up your imaginary world.”
Throughout the interview Huppert and Fitoussi laugh repeatedly and feed off each other’s answers, to the extent that I wonder how that dynamic translates to the set compared to, say, Huppert’s experience with other directors.
“It’s different with every director,” she says. “Having said that, most of the time people have certain preconceived ideas about what would be ‘directing an actor’ – usually, it’s anything else but really ‘directing’. People have fantasies about a director being very verbal in his direction. Most of the time it’s anything but verbal. It’s [looks sideways], it’s all different ways. That’s what ‘directing an actor’ means for me. It’s not verbal, it’s not giving an indication, for me.
“Although with Marc, he is very, very precise in his staging. This kind of movie can very quickly give you the feeling that it’s improvised; lightness can sometimes - not quite rightly - be connected with improvisation. It’s not – it’s very precise, the rhythm is essential and so he really works like a craftsman; little stitch, after little stitch.”
With two collaborations under their belt now, the pair has plans for a third; Fitoussi excitedly says he’s itching to write a “nasty” role for Huppert: “I know she’s very good at that!”
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Fiona Williams interviewed Isabelle Huppert in Paris as a guest of Unifrance.