Isabelle Huppert on White Material, Missing Chabrol, and the Joys of Law & Order: SVU
When Isabelle Huppert, arguably the world's greatest screen actress, needs a minute to send a text message before your interview, you comply. Not necessarily out of deference or politeness (though those things, too), but because of the dazzling daydream potential. Is she sending script notes to Michael Haneke, planning their next collaboration? you may think. Who's she arranging a lunch date with? I guess it can't be Claude Chabrol... And on and on.
The quiet pause also allows for further reflection on White Material, Huppert's first collaboration with veteran filmmaker and French compatriot Claire Denis. (The film opens this weekend in New York and will be available simultaneously at IFC on Demand.) Huppert stars as Maria Vial, a coffee plantation owner thrust into limbo when civil war overtakes her anonymous African nation. Her black farmhands pack up and flee, leaving her, her family and her harvest squarely in the crosshairs of post-colonial crisis. Abandoning the land will cost her everything, Marie believes. But might her determination to stay cost her just as much?
I caught up with Huppert last week to talk it all over, including a few asides into her other recent family-in-danger films, the loss this year of her mentor Chabrol, and why she said yes to a particularly intense episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Should I come back in a bit?
No, no... [Sending text message] You know, in China they have a contest for the fastest person with this.
The fastest text messager?
Yes. I would not win.
I envisioned you as more of an iPhone person.
Oh, no. Oh, no. [Spends another moment texting] I am so sorry. OK!
OK! That's actually a fairly fitting way to start; White Material was made several years ago and has been held up since then. How does returning to it today affect your impressions of it?
On this movie, especially, the gap between when we did the movie and when it was released is unusual. In foreign countries we're used to it. But I've done five films and two plays in the time between when we made this and now. Still, it's always good to come back to it, to speak about it.
How could you and Claire Denis not have worked together before this?
I don't know. We've been friends forever. You'll have to ask her. The move comes from the director. Luckily this time the move -- or the impulse, let's say -- came from me. We've always been close. Claire is really part of my artistic family and my artistic landscape. I read that book by Doris Lessing a couple years ago -- The Grass is Singing? I talked to Claire about it and asked her what she thought. Would it be a good idea to do it onscreen? She was reluctant. She liked the book, of course, but she was not too keen on doing a character like this -- a victim, which is sort of problematic. It's kind of obsolete, the way it's described in Doris Lessing's book. She decided to keep the idea of a white woman in Africa having the face these kinds of events, but she wanted to come up with a much stronger character -- much more physical, much more active, almost like a man, you know? Then she ended up asking Marie Ndiaye, who's a great French writer, to write the script together.
Your character Marie is most definitely a modern woman with tremendous resolve, yet she's also a classic colonialist up to her neck in denial. Which did you find defined her more?
I think it's both. It's the two sides of the medal. She denies everything, and she has blinders and doesn't want to see reality. But the other side of that stubbornness is her confidence, you know? Confidence in something no one else is confident in anymore. She has no political consciousness whatsoever of what's going on. She got along with these people, and she never saw any reason she would be in danger. She just wants to keep moving and have something to do. And what she wants to do is save the harvest -- nothing else exists. But that's her life -- she wants to save her life. She wants to save her land. She was not born there, but that's her life.
The movie is interesting and touching because Claire Denis is telling us not about what people have, but who people are. It's not about possession, it's not about greed or stealing anything from anybody. It's beyond this, above this. It's about being what you are, not being what you have.
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