“I’m more Cruella than Snow White,” acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert says of the types of characters she gravitates toward in comedic films. “Usually when I make comedies I like to play nasty characters.”
The Oscar-nominated dame of international cinema is known for intense dramas, playing women near their breaking point in films such as “The Piano Teacher” or “Elle,” but her relentlessly chameleonic career has found plenty of room for laughter.
There’s no pattern to the movies that tickle her, either as a viewer or as an artist. Her taste, she considers, has never obeyed conventions.
“It’s not always easy to explain why you laugh at something. When I was a little girl, I remember the first film that really made me laugh, which was really one of the first films I ever saw in my life, ‘Yo Yo,’ by the French director Pierre Étaix,” she recalled. “It made me laugh so much. It was a silent movie, very poetic, and not really the kind of movie that usually would make a child laugh, but it made me hysterical.”
Étaix’s powers endure. She recently revisited that childhood favorite and still found herself giggling. Huppert describes the entertainer as a clown actor who elicited laughter in an intellectually stimulating manner. Her modern go-to is “Flirting With Disaster,” a ’90s romp starring Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette and directed by David O. Russell.
“Comedy could be a very specific vehicle in terms of a cultural identity ... There is nothing to be compared between a Marx Brothers film, for example — or more recently Judd Apatow — and French comedies,” she noted. “But that doesn’t mean that you cannot relate to an American comedy. Of course you can, but it’s usually very different, as different as it is with Italian comedy.”
The spectrum of comedic work Huppert herself has covered is vast, from light slapstick to the more cerebral. With her latest — “Mama Weed” — now playing in limited theatrical release and launching on demand Friday, Huppert divulged insights on a handful of distinctively droll titles from her filmography.
Huppert’s role as Patience, a police interpreter turned drug madam, in director Jean-Paul Salomé's crime comedy offered an opportunity for layers of emotional development, orbiting both comedy and pathos. A fan of the prize-winning book on which the movie is based, “La Daronne” by Hannelore Cayre, Huppert was inherently invested.
“I loved it because I thought the background was quite provocative and original,” the actress said. “For me, the movie is as much about what she did, disguising herself as this rich Arabic woman and so forth, as a portrait of a solitary woman trying to cope with reality. I like that substance to the character.”
When Patience comes upon a massive shipment of marijuana, she must fabricate a new identity to sell the clandestine goods to support herself. Each time the character transforms — wearing a hijab, pronounced sunglasses, a colorful long robe and a politely ruthless demeanor — we observe a performance within a performance. While in costume, Huppert amps up the boldness and charm.
“This was a real transformation. I was really a different person trying to speak Arabic. That’s also what you like when you are an actor,” she explained. “As an actress it is not particularly my purpose to disguise myself into a different person, I’m more about being several versions of myself, but in this case I was a different person. I was not myself.”
“My Worst Nightmare”
Broader in tone, 2010’s “My Worst Nightmare” directed by Anne Fontaine, showed Huppert as a headstrong art dealer named Agathe. She likes things done precisely as she requests them. Her son has a new friend, and that boy’s crass father, Patrick (Benoît Poelvoorde), personifies everything she detests. Their clash produces situations ripe for lunacy.
“It was very smart,” the actress said. “This love story between two completely opposite characters — that’s always a good support for a comedy, how you make two very different people from two different worlds meet, and not only meet but also fall in love with each other.”
The joy of making the two-hander came in great part from sharing scenes with Poelvoorde, someone she considers “a very special comedian actor.” The seasoned performer’s over-the-top antics contrast with Huppert’s contained disdain for his juvenile behavior.
“He’s all over the place and she’s an intellectual,” she added. “She’s a bit cold. But, of course, gradually the two extremes come together and you find out that none of the characters really resembles what they project superficially.”
Agreeing to act in a Serge Bozon picture means stepping into a world of unorthodox storytelling hijinks and eccentric protagonists. Huppert’s first taste of the idiosyncratic filmmaker’s realm came with 2014’s “Tip Top,” as part of a duo tasked with uncovering the truth behind the murder of an Algerian informant. Silliness ensues.
“Bozon has such a strange universe and he doesn’t hesitate to turn that universe into comedies. I like what he does very much,” Huppert explained. “You really have to trust his imagination, which is very special because none of his films are realistic. No film is really realistic, but some films are more realistic than others.”
When working with Bozon, her job is to invent a character in a rather mannered mode, with a peculiar way of talking and looking, more exaggerated than authentically human. Costar Sandrine Kiberlain, as the other detective with a less stern personality, was an ideal complement.
“Sandrine is very tall and I’m quite small,” she said. “Sometimes comedy comes from these kinds of details, if you can call your physical appearance a detail. But there was always something in common, a mutual way of being funny, something very ironical. We have the same capacity to create a strange attitude for our characters in the film.”
Another great example of the characters Huppert seldom embodies — those that ask for her to leave her own reality completely out of the dramatic equation — is her role in François Ozon’s musical whodunit “8 Women.” It’s a film in which every one of the female characters is as stylized as the colorful production design and costumes.
As part of a remarkable ensemble also featuring Catherine Deneuve, Huppert dons the dry worldview and rigid appearance of Augustine, someone seemingly in a precarious state of mind. Through song, this collection of women, on the edge of tolerance for one another, disclose their specific conflict or hope. Their bickering and interactions make for plenty of dark chuckles but depth, once again, is what merited Huppert’s interest.
“When she sings, my character shows a hidden aspect of her personality — more tender, her suffering. That part is less of a comedy and more about interiority. With Augustine I was particularly gifted in the film, because I had two transformations, one through the singing and also the more physical transformation at the end,” she said.
“That was the great idea of the film too, that each character had this moment where you could find some fragility in them. The whole theme was almost like a game, there’s something a bit cartoonish about it.”
“In Another Country”
Serendipity granted the French legend one of her favorite partnerships ever with 2012’s “In Another Country,” a romantic comedy from the equally thoughtful and irreverent Korean director Hong Sang Soo. Understatedly hysterical, this triptych sees Huppert as multiple iterations of Anne, a charming tourist meeting different men in each segment.
She met the director through French auteur Claire Denis. When the multitalented actress visited Seoul to present an exhibit of her photographs as a model, “Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces,” she invited Hong to see it. He attended. Soon after he mentioned he was preparing a film. He’d found the perfect location, a hotel a six-hour drive from Seoul, but he didn’t know what the story would entail.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘So you want to be in it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ When I was back in Paris, he called me a number of times and told me a little bit about the script, which was going to be a three-story film. I showed him a couple of dresses from my house, and he said, ‘OK, you can bring those,’” she recalled. “A month later I flew back to Korea, he came to the airport to pick me up, then we shot it in 10 days and that was it.”
Anne’s position as a foreign person in Korea is responsible for some of the film’s comedic magic. The lovers can’t understand each other beyond a few words but their attraction surpasses the limited verbal exchanges. Although Hong, who studied in America, speaks very good English, many of the other crewmembers and actors involved didn’t — including the male lead, Yu Jun-sang, a respected actor in Korea. Yet he and Huppert still communicated in front of and behind the camera.
“It’s one of my most precious experiences in my life, because the whole thing was so sudden, so easy, so unusual,” Huppert said. “It was like a dream, and at the end we had a little masterpiece, so funny and so poetic.”
“I Heart Huckabees”
Huppert’s globe-skipping trajectory has landed her in some English-language pictures, including a memorable supporting part in David O. Russell’s 2004 oddity “I Heart Huckabees.” Steeped in absurdist ideas, the existentialist comedy presents the actress as Caterine Vauban, a sort of antagonist whose nihilistic views on life go against widespread optimism.
Based on her fondness for “Flirting With Disaster,” she signed on after her agent sent the script. Huppert assumed that perhaps Russell had seen her in “The Piano Teacher,” released in 2001. “I was seen as the real intellectual French actress and this is what he needed to create the philosopher I play in the film,” she explained. She admits that she perceived the story as a tad weird and that she doesn’t exactly know what “Huckabees” is really about. “I’m not sure, but it doesn’t bother me.”
The experience allowed her to spend time with members of Hollywood’s elite such as Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin and Jason Schwartzman. “I was really happy to be part of this group of people because American actors have a great ability to create comedy characters unafraid of being exaggerated and they have a great capacity of imagination,” she said.
In Neil Jordan’s 2018 “Greta,” a gruesome narrative centered on a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) being tirelessly harassed by a disturbed woman, Huppert breathes malevolent life into the eponymous madwoman by straddling the line of frightening insanity and camp.
“I like the way Neil plays with genre, which is a great talent. It’s a horror movie but on the other hand it’s also very funny,” she said. For Huppert, “Greta” is a daring piece of work, not only because of the horrifying images that it includes but in how it constructs a sinister yet multidimensional villain.
“The character was really horrible, and I liked to be able to go that far, because you can always find a way to make them as human as possible. She’s not really human because she’s a real monster, but at the same time you can also say that she is seeking affection from this girl, as if she was a daughter.”
Part of the deranged brilliance emanates from Huppert’s fearless ability to play with the material, like a scene where Greta pirouettes around her ornate home holding a gun.
“I’m happy that you caught this, because it’s like with Hong Sang Soo — the whole thing can happen just by pure chance, like this dance on set,” Huppert said enthusiastically. “Sometimes I would start dancing just for myself and Neil said, ‘Oh my God, it’s so nice, do it again.’ But it wasn’t in the script. I just did it. A little dance of madness.”