Isabelle by Isabelle


Out of all the unhinged characters that have defined Isabelle Huppert‘s staggering career in film—the maddeningly expert performances and psychological studies that embed themselves under the skin and refuse to leave us, from The Piano Teacher‘s genius, tortured masochist to La Cérémonie‘s calculating killer—it might be a surprise that her latest and most provocative is one so undoubtedly close to herself.

In Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, which made its U.S. premiere last week opening Film Society at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, Huppert harnesses her talents to play a famous French actress also named Isabelle, reunited with her ex-husband, another actor, Gérard (Gérard Depardieu) at a resort nestled in the stifling, oppressive desert heat of Death Valley. Huppert and Depardieu, arguably two of the most famous French actors of their generation, worked together only twice before, most recently in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou [1980], a brutal, erotic account of the affair of two young lovers. Depardieu was in his prime as French cinema’s answer to Brando and Huppert was the young ingénue with a prestigious career already on the fast track. Paired together again, they inevitably resurrect the ghosts of their past lives.

Nicloux’s narrative positions them as the grieving, estranged parents of a dead adult son, both summoned by his suicide letters to reconnect in Death Valley on the condition they fulfill his dying wishes (and if so, he will reappear to them once again). Yet the director’s plot, which skews to the spiritual and supernatural, creates a meta-fiction around the two, manipulating the world’s perceptions of the stars and their careers for a meditation on how the movies can play with relative truths.

We met Huppert last Friday at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. As she shrewdly explained of the opening scene, a kinetic shot of her character from the back, walking down a sunlit path with a rolling suitcase trailing behind her, “It’s taking you somewhere, but you don’t see immediately the reality of what it is.”

COLLEEN KELSEY: You worked with Guillaume on The Nun [2013]. At what point did he discuss this story with you?

ISABELLE HUPPERT: I think he had written the script already sometime ago, I don’t know, before he started doing The Nun. So, as we were finishing The Nun, he told me this idea about this couple being reunited in Death Valley. I’d been to Death Valley a few months before by coincidence, as a tourist, and immediately when he talked to me about this idea about having this couple being immersed in this amazing landscape, I thought that was a really good idea. It’s a departure of a possible fiction. It’s so powerful. The scenery is like a character. For example, I did this movie [In Another Country, 2012] with Hong Sang-soo, the Korean director. What really originated that film for him was the location. He found the house, he found the place, he liked that place and he wanted to film that place. Then, he made up the story. I like that. In Valley of Love, Guillaume found the place first, but he wanted to set up a story in this place, so that was interesting.

KELSEY: I read this little interview that he did at Cannes where he describes having a very visceral reaction to the environment. But, I had also read that he originally wanted Ryan O’Neal or another actor for your partner.

HUPPERT: Yeah. First, his idea was to have a French actress and an American actor, and then I don’t know. In the course of the events he had difficulties to set up the film this way. So then he had the idea to ask Gérard and immediately he saw the potential to use this non-fiction, fiction side to our relationship. Although, something is very strange, you know. The movie is a great movie for cinema, because cinema is the best way to make you believe things that are not real. In the film, if you carefully watch it, only at the very end I call Gérard “Gérard” and nothing says I’m “Isabelle.” Nothing. It’s pure illusion. So, it’s very strange, the power of something, of cinema, to make people believe that just because it’s Gérard and me, and just because we did this other film together years before, and also because we are playing actors, it’s enough to make people believe that. I think it’s the great quality of the dialogues, which are so natural. It makes people believe that it’s Gérard and me in Death Valley, but it’s a film. It’s fiction.

KELSEY: I assume Guillaume wrote the script quite precisely. I don’t know if there was improvisation or not, but you two are so natural together.

HUPPERT: No, there wasn’t. Except for maybe the last scene when we fight after Gérard claims that he saw the boy. Because it’s a fight scene it was more improvised. But, the rest, the big scenes when we have the very intimate daytime conversations in those landscapes, it was never improvised. It was very precise.

KELSEY: It’s such a delicate balance because, aside from a series of very tragic moments, there’s also a lot of comedy in the film. With you and Gérard when you first re-meet at the beginning at the resort, before you get any sort of information, I really wasn’t sure where the story was going to go. I was like, “I wonder if this romantic comedy?” It just had the flavor of that.


KELSEY: It was like a meet cute or something. Does that just come from you and Gérard’s rapport?

HUPPERT: Yes, but I think it was in the writing too. It’s also me and him. In the way to say these lines there’s a certain distance, a certain sense of humor and irony. But, if we were able to do it, it was also because Guillaume wrote them in that direction too. But, I think that a sense of humor of an actor comes through most of the time, you know. Maybe some actors have less than others, and I have it, I think. It’s my nature.

KELSEY: You have the fiction that Guillaume has created, of your character and Gérard’s character meeting again, and the truth of the sensation of you two meeting again in real life. And then also, the sensation of them being so affected by the landscape in this very corporeal way, as I’m sure both of you must have, physically being affected in the same way as your characters.

HUPPERT: If on paper one would say, “You’re gonna spend three weeks in Death Valley,” you say, “No, I’m not going to be able to.” Very often, very quickly you forget about it. Yes, it was sometimes 60 degrees [Celsius], but it’s very strange, cinema makes you forget reality most of the time. You are more concerned about your inner feelings, or your work. Sometimes you become completely unconscious. You become almost indifferent to it, to the point that there was this very funny moment in the film, that scene when at some point a man passes by, and we don’t even notice! It’s completely, very strange because we are completely alone. It was like being alone in the middle of the moon. We were like an animal. We were completely in our situation.

KELSEY: The Museum of Moving Image in Queens just had a big Pialat showing and I saw Loulou there for the first time. I absolutely loved it, but it’s such a brutal film. Valley of Love is brutal in a completely different way. Does Guillaume have a certain kinship with Pialat? Sylvie [Pialat’s widow] is the producer, but it’s impossible not to mention the last film you did with Gérard was Loulou.

HUPPERT: Guillaume is certainly—as many French directors, I have to say, are—very much influenced by Pialat. He really achieved something that so many directors in the world want to approach. Pialat really succeeded to really give this feeling of life, [his films] become like documentaries and yet, they are fiction. Yet, it’s an organization like a film should be. It’s not nonsense. It’s very, very structured. But he was unique. There were magical moments in shooting for that. That’s for sure.

KELSEY: What was it like to act with Gérard again?

HUPPERT: It was very nice, really wonderful, really very simple. We act very well together; there was no obstacle. We just get into the scene and in the same mood. We have a good rhythm together. It’s very easy. I can’t say otherwise.

KELSEY: Since “Isabelle” in the film is an actress, and is somewhat probably closer to you than other characters, is that difficult or easier to approach in terms of preparation?

HUPPERT: Let’s say, she says that she’s an actress. One would expect an actress to stand onscreen mostly as a caricature. If she would say, “I’m selling shoes,” you would believe her. She says it and it creates this fiction, non-fiction perception of the film. People believe it because she says it. If she said, “I’m a butcher,” people would believe it too, I think.

KELSEY: Until she actually says it, you don’t know what she does. Then there’s one moment in the suicide letter where the son mentions that he saw her at a festival, then it gives you a clue.

HUPPERT: In the reading of the letters you understand a lot, because he describes his life as a child having his two parents as actors and says, “You’ve been away so many times.” This, you know. So, you create a whole fiction around these two people by what is being said about them. For me the movie is a great film for cinema, because again, you make people believe what they see, because you create the fiction around them. The son creates that fiction, and the son is exactly like the director, because the son creates the fiction and is a great coordinator of the situation, like all children in the world want to be. They want to control their parents’ lives. It does this when he’s already dead. It’s very interesting.

KELSEY: The dynamic between the parents is interesting because she is much more trusting.

HUPPERT: She’s a believer and he’s a skeptic. They have two different ethical attitudes towards life. She believes. He does not believe. In these situations it’s quite likely that the mother believes, because maybe the pain is even more unbearable for the mother. She’s ready to make up anything. Then he believes and she does not believe anymore because she wasn’t rewarded for her belief, and he’s rewarded for not having belief, but he’s the one who sees. That’s very tricky. [laughs]

KELSEY: The one scene towards the end where she reads the letter and breaks down, it’s such an emotional, cathartic moment, and so defining of her character.

HUPPERT: Yes, because in this moment you can feel that she’s really touched by it. Also what I like about the film, she’s in tears from the beginning. She’s a normal person. The child has died some time before already, but as the film goes on, you can really feel the weight of the loss and of the pain.