Isabelle Huppert / Madame président

Actress AngeliqueChrisafis FrenchActress IsabelleHuppert

 Isabelle Huppert has become a fantasy of the femme fatale masochist,
winning a Cannes best actress award for The Piano Teacher.
 Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/ CANNES 2009
Madame président Next week, Isabelle Huppert heads the jury of the Cannes film festival. How will the 'anti-star' of French arthouse cinema manage the fights, the egos and the pressure of choosing a winner?

Angelique Chrisafis
Friday 8 May 2009

t's nearly midnight in Amiens, the city below the ghostly battlefields of the Somme. The dark streets are deserted, France's largest gothic cathedral looms in all its gargoyled glory and a woman famous for embodying self-mutilating, murderous, tortured misfits has just sped through the night from a castle to meet me. Impervious to the eeriness, Isabelle Huppert, French cinema's glacial femme fatale, is not the impassive, purse-lipped dragon she can be on screen, but gently animated under the too-bright lights of a hotel closing up for the night. She has been on set at the castle for more than 10 hours, in a comedy shot across north eastern France yet called Copacabana. True to her reputation for staying up late and barely ever stopping work, Huppert will finish the film just in time for Wednesday's launch of the Cannes film festival, where she is heading the jury – only the fourth woman president in 60 years, after Liv Ullmann, Jeanne Moureau and writer Françoise Sagan. Huppert has been pointedly reserved about how she will judge this year's illustrious offerings – which are dominated by a group of big names including Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino and Ken Loach – or how she intends to run a jury including British novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and award-winning Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. When she steps out to give an opening speech on Wednesday, expectations will be high – in France, Huppert is known as the "anti-star", a philosophising Baudrillard fan and art-house intellectual who says the fact she is a woman has no relevance and will make no difference to her choices . In three decades of acting, Huppert has made almost 90 films, with legends from Jean-Luc Godard to Claude Chabrol. Her pared-down portrayals of tortured and twisted women who exist under the surface of everyday French life has made her a Cannes fixture. She has won two best actress awards, most recently in 2001 for her masterly and agonising portrayal of a self-harming, voyeuristic pianist trapped by her domineering mother in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. With dozens of films at Cannes and two stints on the jury, her red hair and freckles have long been one of the festival's defining faces. In 2001 she appeared on the red carpet with a tattoo across her back and arms, quoting the Romanian writer Emil Cioran, "God can thank Bach because Bach is the proof of God's existence." In 1978, when she won her first best actress award for Violette Nozière (a desolate, syphilitic teenage seducer of older men who exacted the ultimate revenge on her bourgeois parents) security guards tried to bar Huppert from the ceremony as they didn't know who she was. Huppert is not fazed by having to judge this year's exceptional line-up of directors, insisting she will not get bogged down in their reputations. "One discovers a film for what it is. And a great director tries to renew themself each time. An artist by definition reinvents themself with each new work." That said, she adds: "Perhaps one year we shouldn't tell the jury who made the films they are watching. Cover their eyes and ears for 10 days." To her, Cannes is about waiting for the great surprise, the anonymous masterpiece. "Something you least expect … That curiosity and openness, I don't think Cannes could be any other way. It's a place that celebrates the intrinsic value of film." But politics always hovers just above the palm fronds. Amid the chaos of May 1968, the festival was cancelled as Godard, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and other new wave greats led a rebellion over the government's attempts to sack the founder of the Cinématèque Française. Then, France was in social meltdown but the economy was buoyant and the protesters had dreams. Today, desperate workers across France are manning picket lines, and the nation is watching to see if the first Cannes festival since the crisis will reflect the world's new dread of money and markets. "It will be interesting to see if cinema is already reflecting that," says Huppert. "We might be surprised, maybe film will ignore it, maybe it will move away from it, or tackle it. I don't know. The crisis is so recent, I don't know if films can spontaneously reflect that." Huppert, whose own roles have touched on murder, abortion, incest and violence, is very conscious of following Sean Penn, last year's jury president, who stressed the importance of cinema's social and political dimension, handing the Palme d'Or to the complete outsider, The Class, a film about life in a Paris classroom. The year before, Stephen Frears's jury gave the prize to a Romanian drama about abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. "I don't think Sean Penn used the world politics in a narrow sense: it's in the widest sense where a film offers a reflection on the world," Huppert says. She doesn't think politics has a role to play apart from in its sense of "an individual's struggle for a place in society." Nor does she think Cannes's Boulevard de la Croisette will tone down its red-carpet glamour for crisis-hit times. Huppert knows better than most that the cinema industry is no stranger to crisis and ruin, and the producers often sipping cocktails on the hotel terraces are trading compromises and thwarted projects. "Even in the good times, cinema's defining characteristic has always been to fall somewhere between prosperity and a relentless struggle." And she thinks television's 24-hour obsession with the red carpet has changed the whole festival. "When I started, TV wasn't as all-powerful as it is now. Then it was photography that was crucial." Does she mean the constant scramble to drum up controversy and fights at Cannes? "No, it's just the constant, gigantic media coverage. The fights – they were always there." Huppert has been privy to some of the best Cannes rows, such as the auteur Maurice Pialat's V-sign to the audience when he was booed collecting his prize for Under Satan's Sun, and his later spat with Gérard Depardieu, whom he called "a Rolls with a 2CV engine."

She cut her teeth at Cannes with the best, and was once part of a jury headed by Dirk Bogarde. "He was very kind, very serious. Very nonchalant – I mean that as a compliment." It makes sense that Huppert, a deadpan actor who prides herself on hiding more than she shows on film, prizes nonchalance. This is why her heading the jury intrigues France, which is both enchanted by her intensity and scared by it. I once interviewed Catherine Deneuve after she headed the jury at the Venice film festival, where she found the responsibility so troubling that she lost sleep and almost fell ill, escaping alone from Venice's Lido island by boat for a brief break to eat ice cream in the street "like a child". It's harder to picture the steely Huppert doing that.

She was born in Paris in 1953 to a father who made safes and an English teacher mother. Her great-grandmother and grand aunt were the Callot sisters, lacemakers who became hugely successful Paris couturiers in the 1920s, but went bust in the 1929 crash. France fell in love with the young Huppert's freckled face in the early 70s when she played a teenager deflowered by a brutish Gérard Depardieu in Les Valseuses. She went on to define French arthouse in work for directors such as Chabrol, for whom her roles ranged from a wronged housewife and secret abortionist in the second world war to Madame Bovary. Married to director Ronald Chammah, she has three children, including young actor Lolita Chammah, with whom she is currently filming in Amiens. It's her first time starring opposite her daughter in a mother-daughter plot, but perhaps a fitting end to a string of recent films she has made about childlike, hard and brutal mothers, from the taboos of a mother's close relationship with her son in Ma Mère to her recent portrayal of Marguerite Duras's mother in The Sea Wall. Huppert has become a fantasy of the femme fatale masochist, the damaged soul, someone who so often and so understatedly plays pain and violence that you wonder what effect it has had on her. "Leave a mark? Not at all!" she says, eyes widening when I ask if she was damaged by playing the repressed lead character in The Piano Teacher, lifting her skirt to cut herself. "A role like that is cathartic, it's a way of getting rid of something. To act or to do something you love is a way to make yourself lighter, to rid yourself of things that weigh you down. When I play a very sombre, very dramatic role, it's pleasant, because it's something I can release." She once said acting was a way of living out your insanity, but insists on playing her characters as unnervingly normal, even when they are disturbingly childlike. She said she likes to refer back to a child's innocence and irresponsibility when she plays adults who find it difficult fitting into their world. Shooting the light comedy in Amiens is "1,000 times more difficult" than her tragic roles, she says. She likes playing people and emotions, not "characters" and while she regards each role as a kind of self-portrait, she says she learns nothing new about herself, "though others might do." Huppert is meticulous about selecting her roles, and feels she has never chosen a dud. "Unfortunately, it's becoming harder and harder. There are lots of films we made a while back that we couldn't make now. There is definitely an impoverishment. Everyone knows that there's a decline. Maybe it can be explained by fear. Fear makes us less curious. People want to earn money; they think to earn more money you must dumb down." She believes there are still big names out there, but the conditions for making good cinema has become tougher, and chances for new talent more limited. She hopes Cannes will surprise her. But how do you judge a film? "I don't think we're there to judge, we're there to love films," she says of the jury. "And that's the problem. What do we do if we love them all?" She admits the choice of a winning film is totally subjective, and is troubled by the fact that some great films never won prizes. "And how many times have you heard someone say, 'I really liked that film at that moment in time but I just watched it again and it wasn't up to it'?" She worries about choosing a winner at Cannes that's not just good for now but for always. "To appreciate films that will last – that's what's so difficult. You have to allow subjectivity to reign. But at the same time you have to be clairvoyant." And she heads off to at last get some sleep, a long run of filming ahead of her before she reaches la Croisette. THE GUARDIAN

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