Although she’s never shown much interest in stardom—and certainly not the personal revelations that normally accompany it—Isabelle Huppert has become famous for her dangerous and unpredictable roles in movies like The Piano Teacher and Time Of The Wolf, unsparing explorations of the animal side of human nature. Her talents matched perfectly with the jaundiced sensibility of the late Claude Chabrol, whose icy cynicism was always tinged with a lethal smile. Given her propensity for working with directors like Chabrol and Michael Haneke, it’s almost surprising it’s taken so long for her to join forces with Claire Denis, but join forces they do with White Material. Huppert plays the owner of a coffee plantation in an unidentified African nation on the verge of revolt, a woman of formidable strength and even more formidable stubbornness, unable to accept or even understand that the world she has known since birth is no longer hers. Huppert talked to The A.V. Club in New York about learning to ride a motorcycle, why she’s not interested in psychology, and her “impressionist” relationship with directors.
The A.V. Club: White Material started with you saying to Claire Denis, “I want to make a movie with you in Africa about a certain kind of woman.” Why did you want to make that movie with her?
Isabelle Huppert: Well, I wanted to make a movie with Claire. I didn’t really care what movie. Certain people you just want to make movies with. Of course I was interested in the story and in the character, but she could have taken me to the North Pole and I would be happy. I might be a little colder. Certain directors I am interested in working with in general, to such a point where initially I asked Claire if she would consider doing Doris Lessing’s first book, The Grass Is Singing. Claire kept the idea of doing the movie of a white woman in Africa having to face this emergency situation, but she totally changed the subject. She just kept the idea of the woman in Africa, but she didn’t want to do that book in particular. She thought that maybe it was problematic of the book that it was a bit obsolete, time has passed since then, and the character was much more of a victim and she wanted to create a more physical heroine, a much more active woman. This is how we ended up with this script. And she asked Marie N’Diaye, a brilliant writer who won the Goncourt Prize last year for another book called Three Powerful Women, to write the script with her.
AVC: Was there something about that idea of a woman in Africa in a certain time period that appealed to you specifically?
IH: No, that’s really Claire’s own history. It’s not my story. It’s not my history. It’s something she started to experiment on with Chocolat and then she went on with Beau Travail. She has a whole story with this country and I think she’s really entitled to speak about it. But I have nothing to do with that. Why the movie is so powerful is because the film takes place in a specific, or let’s say imaginary, country, but still specific in the continent. She speaks about belonging to a land, she speaks about what it means to be attached to a territory, she speaks about what it means to be displaced, a population that has to leave its country. And so therefore it becomes totally universal, like Shakespeare, a tragedy.
AVC: The life of a filmmaker or an actor is an itinerant one, the opposite of how you’re describing your character, who can’t imagine pulling up stakes. Do you connect with that sense of being rooted in a specific place?
IH: Yes, I think it’s part of the human being’s texture. The big problem in the world is when people are forced to be in a totally foreign context. It’s human. People create these ties and want to stick with their ties. She shows that through the strength that this woman has to stay in this land, but also the way she shows the two families. Not only doesn’t she want to leave that land, but also she doesn’t want to leave her ex-husband. Once you have created ties, even when these ties seem to be over, they are still something going on, and that’s something you want to stick to. She says a lot by putting these two houses next to each other. There was this modern house in which her husband now lives with his new wife, and there’s this older house where she lives, and these houses are nearby and it’s like there was this invisible link that still ties the two houses. In fact, they have a son together. All of this has a function, to show in a metaphorical way that all people have to stay together, and when certain political situations force you to give up that, you get in trouble.
AVC: Your character has relationships in this world, and to an extent, she refuses to recognize that they’ve changed. When men pull her over at gunpoint and demand money to let her car pass, she says, “I know you. You’re my son’s gym teacher. And your father sells seeds.” Is that determination or stubbornness or just a failure to come to terms?
IH: It’s a little bit of everything. One can think that she has almost blinkers, she doesn’t see reality around her. She’s unconscious. She has an idée fixe, as they say in French. She wants that crop to be done, she needs the work to be done, she has a certain consciousness of how things should be, and of course she doesn’t want to face reality, because also in this stubbornness, in this incredible physical resistance and capacity to resist, she has this sort of idealism where she thinks that these people should go on living together. She does not want to face the reality. She’s not a political woman, because in her own manner, her own behavior, she never treated people badly. She relates equally to people whether they’re white or black, it doesn’t make any difference to her. On purpose, I think Claire chose to set her story in the agricultural environment, because if these people were in a more urban environment, more in the business, the confusion between what you are and what you want to keep and what you have, may be bigger. You see a more pure attachment to the land. Showing it through this love of land, love of the crop, love of nature. It makes it more legitimate.
AVC: They literally have roots.
AVC: It’s interesting how the character is introduced in the movie. Claire establishes her relationships to other characters very gradually; her son doesn’t even appear until half an hour in. There’s no scene where all the relationships are neatly laid out at the beginning. In most movies, especially with female characters, we’d get that right away, but Claire presents her as a woman before she presents her as a mother and former wife.
IH: The way Claire makes movies, it’s much more real the way she does it. Most of the time in movies, it’s hard to explain, you show things in a way that you don’t see things happen in real life. But here, you have a temporality, a way to make time pass, which is totally true for me. The fact, for instance, that you only see the son after half an hour, is very telling about even how the everyday life has been structured. In fact, if you have a sleeping boy, like a veggie, staying in his bed, you don’t see him in the morning. There is a whole life before he starts to awaken, and you just take him out of his bed. So it makes sense, rather than having at the very beginning a big psychological exposure scene, where you have a big fight between the mother and the son. Showing things the way she does, she knows how to handle it. She’s a great filmmaker because she really uses cinema to explain things, but she does not make cinema by using psychology or sociology.
AVC: How do you approach doing a character with her if you’re not talking about psychology?
IH: As I said, the character is mainly defined by her physicality, and by the way she bears all that. So there is no strategy, no perversity, no complexities. She’s just—boom. So I started learning how to do the motorcycle in Paris on a parking lot near my house, first, a few weeks before I had to leave. When I got there I learned how to do the tractor, which was not very difficult, because there are two speeds: rabbit and turtle. Turtle to be slow, rabbit to be fast. I thought it was so poetic, rabbit and turtle. [Laughs.] Then I learned how to drive a truck. I don’t have a license; I don’t even know how to drive a car, so I had to handle all this. Claire, she wanted to have this small woman, which I am, quite thin and fragile, and put her in such an environment where her strength is even more visible, having to fight.
AVC: You mentioned her physicality. One of the striking moments is when she’s got a truck full of men she’s hired to harvest her coffee crop, and she stops to pick up her husband’s son from school. The camera is very low as she walks away, almost on the ground, and she’s walking at a totally unhurried pace despite the fact that all these men are waiting for her. Are those the kinds of things you talk about with Claire? How she’ll walk through the frame?
IH: What I like in a relationship with a director is I like to get the answer I need through a little sign they give me, but it doesn’t go along with a normal, classical answer/question relationship. It’s more impressionist. You have to be very attentive to how Claire is. All of a sudden she would drop just a word, just, “I like that.” And you just catch it, and just create the whole world through it.
AVC: Does that relationship become more so if you create several films with the same director?
IH: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
AVC: Is that something you’ve tried to do? Work with the same directors.
IH: Yeah. With Claude Chabrol, and Michael Haneke, with whom I’m going to do my third picture next March, and Benoit Jacquot.
AVC: What are you doing with Michael Haneke in the spring?
IH: He’s doing a movie about getting old. Not me, my parents. And I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to talk about it again. But it’s a very simple and yet big story because it’s not that simple to get old and see your parents get old. But that’s what it is about.
AVC: Haneke’s movies are in a way more concerned with the psychology of the audience than of the characters. It frustrates some viewers that he doesn’t solve the mystery of Caché, or explain what happens in The White Ribbon, but that’s not his aim. Even your character in The Piano Teacher, which is more of a character study, isn’t really explained in psychological terms. Do you have to understand the character’s psychology even if you’re not going to portray it explicitly?
IH: Of course I have to understand the character. But I don’t need a lot to understand it. It’s a difference. Of course you have to understand what you’re acting, but you don’t necessarily have to make a choice. I mean, understanding your character is also embodying the complexity of a character, and it doesn’t mean necessarily making a choice and requiring from both the character and the director to tell you whether it’s black or white. It’s just understanding that it can be black and white.