Oscar Nominee Isabelle Huppert Looks Back at Her Early Career

After a compelling 40-plus-year career, Isabelle Huppert received her first Oscar nomination for her complex performance in Sony Classics’ “Elle.” The recognition was a “This film means so much to me,” she says. “And with this nomination, [director] Paul Verhoeven is also rewarded.” Huppert was raised in the western suburbs of Paris and trained at a conservatory near Versailles.

Variety first noticed Huppert in a July 12, 1972, review of “The Bar at the Crossing,” which starred singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Her breakthrough was in 1977’s “The Lacemaker,” directed by Claude Goretta. Since then, she has demonstrated her range in such varied films as “Coup de torchon,” “Heaven’s Gate,” “Madame Bovary,” and “The Piano Teacher.” A prolific and versatile star, in the past five years she has chalked up 25 film, TV, and stage performances. Last year, thanks to her role in “Things to Come,” a Variety review dubbed her “our greatest living actress.”

How did you get your start?

My mother had a great influence on my begin-ning. She encouraged me to take courses at drama school … where I got a first prize. From that, I met a major casting director, Margot Capelier, who was basically the French equivalent of the American honored recently at the Governors Awards [Lynn Stalmaster]. She was the one who cast me in “The Bar at the Crossing.”

Was that your first film? 

I had done a couple of things for television. My very, very first appearance was most likely in a short film about Marcel Proust, in which I played the young Gilberte, who goes to the ice-skating rink in “Remembrance of Things Past.” As for “The Bar at the Crossing,” they had a copy at the Cinémathèque in Toulouse, so I had the opportunity to see the film again a few years ago. It was really not great, a completely improbable film. It took place in Canada, Jacques Brel was the lead, and it was directed by a famous cameraman, Alain Levent — it was his first and last film as a director.

You’ve acted in more than 100 films since, working with some of the world’s best directors — Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke — on multiple occasions.

I think I missed quite a few opportunities early on — though I did “The Judge and the Assassin” for Bertrand Tavernier and a very good French film called “Aloïse,” about a schizophrenic painter. And, of course, there was “Going Places,” which strangely enough became a movie for its generation. I was playing this very, very young girl who insults her parents, so my scene happened to be one that personalized the film’s spirit of rebellion.

What was the movie that changed your life?

“The Lacemaker,” which was really important for me. My mother had told me that I should read the book because the description of the character was so close to me. It was as if the author, Pascal Lainé, had written the role for me! Every actress hopes to encounter such a part somewhere in her career, and I was incredibly fortunate to experience that at a very early stage in my life. That opportunity defined how I was perceived as an actress from that point on.

When selecting a project, what attracts you to a role these days?

For me, it’s not a role. I don’t like the idea of character, for example. A character for me is very arbitrary; it gives you only limitations. I prefer to think I just play situations, states of minds,
feelings. Great projects are always rare. I mean, it’s not like you sit on top of the pile of great masterpieces and say, ‘Oh, what should I do?’ It never happens like that.

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