If I asked you to guess John Waters’ favorite actress, you’d probably come up with some obscure B-movie diva or tough-as-nails Old Hollywood broad. But you’d be wrong. As the crowd at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater learned last night, Waters is fully in awe of Isabelle Huppert, the brilliant French actress who’s known for her limit-pushing collaborations with Europe’s most challenging directors, from Michael Haneke to Claude Chabrol to Claire Denis.
Huppert, who will share the Lincoln Center stage with Cate Blanchett in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids beginning August 6, was paying a visit to the Film Society for a special preview screening of her new movie, Abuse of Weakness.
Perhaps the most autobiographical film yet by Catherine Breillat, the French poet of power and sexuality who is best known for controversial works like Fat Girl and has lately devoted herself to dark adaptations of fairy tales (Bluebeard, The Sleeping Beauty), Abuse of Weakness chronicles the aftermath of the stroke the filmmaker suffered in 2004. Huppert plays director and author Maud Schoenberg, a lightly fictionalized version of Breillat. After fighting her way out of the hospital, Maud is determined to make her next film. She soon spots a notorious con man (the rapper Kool Shen, playing a version of the real-life grifter Christophe Rocancourt) on a late-night talk show and summons him to her home to offer him the role. Where their relationship goes from there is both inevitable and surprising; he swindles her, yes, but the fact that she manipulates him sometimes, too, can muddy the question of who’s using who. It’s a riveting portrait of a nonsexual romance, fueled largely by Huppert’s performance as a strong woman whose sudden physical weakness exposes an unexpected emotional vulnerability.
“Do you get it?” Waters asked Huppert, a tiny woman even in five-inch platform shoes, in his interview with her after the screening. “She didn’t even get laid.” Huppert, whose reactions to Waters’ offbeat questions ranged from amusement to bemusement, offered the kind of insight you’d expect from an actress who’s never met a psychologically complex role she couldn’t master: “That’s the black hole of the film,” she said. “It says a lot about what’s not happening… You know what money does: it comes instead of.” Later, she elaborated on the mechanics of her character’s entirely unique relationship with Shen’s Vilko Piran, explaining, “The fact that there is no sex allows them to have an adolescent-like relationship.”
Isabelle Huppert in ‘Abuse of Weakness’
From there, the conversation expanded to encompass plenty of other highlights from Huppert’s career, with Waters jumping from favorite to favorite with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the super-fan he is. Marveling at the actress’ willingness to stretch herself in demanding and uncomfortable roles, he asked, “What could make you say no?” Huppert’s perfect response: “I’m not an easy girl.”
Waters was full of surprising and delightful yes-or-no questions. He wondered if she could disguise herself on the street by acting “not-famous” and whether she could have played the rape victim in Gaspar Noé’s shocking Irreversible and whether it’s true, what prostitutes say about powerful men taking on submissive roles in bed; Huppert answered all three questions in the affirmative. “I don’t think there is a female way of doing movies,” she told Waters, in response to a query about whether extreme female directors were any different to work with than their male counterparts. Questioned about playing “bad women,” she replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever played a bad woman. I’ve played women in bad situations.” And had she ever finished making a movie and worried that she’d gone too far? “No,” Huppert said, “but I might do, in the future.”
It was as idiosyncratic an interview as you’d expect from John Waters — and one that prompted the elderly woman next to me to complain to her companion, “That guy’s asking stupid questions!,” though most of the room seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Things got particularly amusing when Waters turned the conversation to Story of Women, the 1988 Claude Chabrol film in which Huppert plays an abortionist. “I’m a fan of all abortion movies!” he enthused, mentioning his recent favorite, the documentary After Tiller, which he said poses the question: which of the three late-term abortion providers left in America do you like best? Waters asked Huppert whether the issue was as controversial in her home country as it is in the US. “Even in France, some people don’t like it,” she said, cautiously, recounting some backlash to a scene in Story of Women that involves the Virgin Mary and could be considered blasphemous. “It still agitates some narrow-minded people.”
Like a good journalist, Waters wrapped up by interrogating Huppert about her upcoming roles; she’ll soon be shooting Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs in New York, and will reunite with The Nun director Guillaume Nicloux for Valley of Love. But he closed the evening with his strangest compliment of all: Waters called Huppert’s impassive appearance in a leaked video of David O. Russell blowing up at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees his favorite performance of hers. “You showed no emotion!” he gushed. “Nothing really surprised me in a David O. Russell movie,” Huppert explained. Still, Waters remained impressed. “Checking your makeup was the perfect way to upstage everybody!” he insisted. The elderly woman next to me had long since departed in disgust, but as far as I was concerned, this was precisely the kind of exchange anyone should feel lucky to witness between Europe’s bravest actress and America’s Pope of Trash.
Lead image credit: Julie Cunnah/Lincoln Center