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Talking With Isabelle Huppert

     This is my third talk with Isabelle Huppert. The first occasion was at the 1977 New York Film Festival. She was a rising French actress, best known here as a loose, freckled teen in Bertrand Blier's Going Places (1974), suddenly acclaimed because of her lead role--a meek, monosyllabic, young thing with a reserve of strength--in Claude Goretta's The Lacemaker. The next time we conversed, 1980, she was the urbane Eurostar of Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie)/Every Man for Himself. As such, she was well-traveled, perfectly at home in English, and articulate about distinguishing the methods and talents of her various directors--Pialat, Chabrol, etc.--in ways rare for actors.

     Our latest meeting, at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival, was about her happy collaboration with Benoit Jacquot on The School of Flesh. In Jacquot's adaptation of a Mishima novel, she plays a financially secure Parisian who works for a Japanese clothes designer and who falls deeply in love with a lower-class, probably bisexual, gigolo. Now fortyish, Huppert is more elegant than ever, and immensely eloquent, but also, as with many of her sublime screen characters, a little cool.

Q-Will you act again for Pialat or Godard?

I'd love to work with Pialat, but he's very complicated. You have to learn to compromise for him. If you don't know how to do it, you are lost. I'd also love to work with Godard again. It's a gift to share an experience with him, even if he can be a pain. He's a sort of conscience of cinema. Sometimes he delivers lessons, but that doesn't matter. He's a great poet at the same time.

Q-Describe working with Benoit Jacquot on l'ecole de la chair/The School of Flesh.

We're friendly. We'd already made a film together, les ailes de colombe/Wings of the Dove, and we'll probably make still another, No Scandal. His talent is to raise many questions, and then not answer them, the way of all good filmmakers. For The School of Flesh, he wanted to be very close on my face, filming faces like landscapes, and I thought that was a very good idea. I can also be flat, like TV. But here, there's an architecture, ups and downs, shadings, sunsets, and sunrises. The idea of Caroline Champetier's cinematography was to show naked faces. You see the flesh through the skin.

What's your opinion of the narrative?

This film has a sentimental story without being sentimental, the way I think films should be made. It's also what happens to this particular woman. She always keeps a certain distance. She's at school. Through passion and suffering, she learns about herself but without destroying herself. The film manages to avoid all the clichés, even about why the couple can't live together. It's partly because Quentin is younger, and a gigolo. But the more you see the reasons, the less they are the real ones.

Q-What are the real reasons their romance can't survive?

I don't have the answer. Maybe they weren't supposed to end up together. Maybe he's an instrument for Dominique to find out more about herself. The film doesn't give answers: we see human beings making a little path together and learning things through their encounters. The relationship is really seen through Dominique's eyes. That's what I like about The School of Flesh, this change to a woman's POV. Even if she dresses like a man, she remains a woman, and it's she who learns how to live and how not to die.

Q-How does Dominique see Quentin?

You get a sense that there's real danger. He's a beam of light. But when she looks at him frontally, she gets blinded. She could die of it, and you sense a great despair, and yet she never gets trapped in her despair.

Q-She's like the man in that she pays the bills.

We ask, how could you love someone and pay him? But it's the way any man would do with a girl. She pays for the hotel room. She insists on paying. It's fair. He doesn't have any money. She says to him, "You can keep the leftover money." The one who pays has the control, the power.

Q-How did you investigate Dominique's life before the movie takes place?

I never do that, I don't need to have an explanation. The character exists only in the life of the camera. Your imagination has to be within the limits of the frame, which is the arbiter. I trust the director, so there's more past of my character in her clothes, her furniture than in an endless story I can invent. Costumes concern me very much: this woman has beautiful clothes, and she always keeps her coat on. She doesn't really settle anywhere, She's more like a child than an adult. Maybe he becomes an adult quicker than she does.

Q-At the end of the movie, when they meet again, he has a child, but by someone else.

The child is the promise they never achieved together. There's also the child she was. There's regret, but something else. Before, when they were blind to each other, they didn't really see the differences between them. Now the differences become more obvious. They're so close, so far. It's like that. You love someone, you meet him years later, and it's like you never touched him before. But there is flesh in this film. It's in the eyes and souls.

(June, 1999)


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