Three Great Things: Isabelle Huppert

The iconic French actress, whose new film La Syndicaliste opens in theaters today, on the art that truly excites her.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the December 1 release in select theaters of La Syndicaliste, the real-life thriller about whistleblower Maureen Kearney starring Isabelle Huppert in the titular lead role, the iconic French actress shared some of the works she’s most creatively excited by at the moment. — N.D.

I’m going to start with a film I saw recently, the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s new feature, Kidnapped, which was at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It is a true story that takes place in the 19th century about a little Jewish boy who was converted to Catholicism and raised as a Catholic. It’s a wonderful film – very powerful, very disturbing, and very, very deep. I hope it’s going to be released in the States soon; it’s just been released in France and is having a lot of success right now.

The staging is amazing – the light, the atmosphere. It’s a period film, but Bellocchio is really a great director, so his approach to how it’s filmed is very free, very unexpected a lot of the time. As a director, he has always taken very strong subject matters. His film’s themes are very social, sometimes quite political in the very large sense of the word, and the work is focused on people’s stories. But it’s always also a general vision of the world through the story of an individual. I did a movie with Marco about 10 years ago called Dormant Beauty, which is about euthanasia. It was the story of a woman who was dying, but through this special case, he made a real statement about what euthanasia means for society.

Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot
My second thing is Turandot by Puccini, a revival at the Opéra Bastille of the great theatre director Robert Wilson’s staging from two years ago. I’ve worked many times with Bob Wilson, including right now. His staging of Turandot is amazing, and all his opera work is great, especially his use of light and abstraction, because he’s a master of abstraction. I’ve seen many operas staged by Robert Wilson and his use of abstraction always fits the opera, which is so inherently unnatural. There is nothing more unnatural than people singing as a way of telling the story, so it’s better to be more abstract, rather than realistic. Most of the time, Robert Wilson’s abstraction creates miracles in the opera.

Right now, I’m doing a piece with Robert Wilson called Mary Said What She Said, a monologue about the life of Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been doing it for four years now, in many places across Europe. We were interrupted by Covid; we were meant to do it in the States, but soon I’ll finally be in New York, Los Angeles and some various places in the States to perform this piece.

Robert Wilson is a master. When he first appeared on the world scene, everybody said he revolutionized space and time in theatre, which I think is true. When you see a production by Robert Wilson, what will often strike you first is the space; most of the time, he has people move on a stage quite slowly, but not always. Sometimes in Mary Said, the characters also walk very fast. It’s my third collaboration with Bob Wilson, after Orlando, the Virginia Woolf’s book – which I would love to do again, because I think it’s even more telling right now – and Quartet, a play by Heiner Müller. You sometimes lose your sense of time when you watch his productions, the way he has people move so slowly. It’s like a dream. But because I’ve worked with him so much, it never feels to me anything but real and natural, even though it’s very abstract. He works on the precision of the gestures, the position of the hands (because the lights are so important), and yet I never feel abstract in the way I express whatever I have to express. It’s very deep and very emotional. It’s strange, this seeming conflict between the shape and form of what he proposes and what you can project as an actor. This apparent antagonism is, at the end of the day, the opposite of an antagonism. It’s really interesting to work with him.

Returning to Reims
My third thing is a great book called Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon, who is a well-known French philosopher. Reims is a town in France famous for its champagne, and it’s also where Didier Eribon grew up. He has become a great intellectual, but he came from a very poor background. The book is an homage to his mother, who passed away, and also about how difficult it is to deal with old people at the end of their lives. (There has been a lot of controversy in France about nursing homes; there were scandals recently, where they found out that some people had been badly treated.) Returning to Reims is at times realistic and at others very philosophical about what it means to get old and to die. It’s also a wonderful portrait of his relationship with his mother, and sometimes is very funny. It’s a great book. It’s very smart, very powerful, but it’s also very touching. It’s rare a book can be simultaneously very simple and very complex.

I read a lot, but I can’t say that I read a lot of philosophy. I read Returning to Reims because I know Didier Eribon personally and he’s a wonderful man. I wish sometimes that I read more books like Returning to Reims and sometimes I say to myself, Maybe it would be nice to go back to school and to read more philosophy. It could only make my life feel warmer.

Featured image, courtesy Kino Lorber, shows Isabelle Huppert in La Syndicaliste.

Isabelle Huppert is currently starring in the title role of La Syndicaliste, the real-life drama about whistleblower Maureen Kearney. One of the world’s most prominent actresses, Huppert is acclaimed for her incredible versatility, playing roles ranging from the sexually repressed title character in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher to the sharp-tongued spinster in François Ozon’s 8 Women. Celebrated for her many collaborations with director Claude Chabrol, she has won Best Actress twice each at the European Film Awards, Cannes and Venice. She won the Best Actress César for La Cérémonie, having been nominated at the awards a record 14 times.