Isabelle Huppert Returns to Cannes, in English
Isabelle Huppert is going to the Cannes Film Festival. Well, that’s actually not newsworthy — Ms. Huppert, who is the star of Ira Sachs’ “Frankie,” has appeared in more than two dozen films at Cannes. She has won the best actress award there twice, for “Violette Nozière” and “The Piano Teacher.” She has been a member of the jury voting on the films in competition and was even its president in 2009. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say Cannes would feel incomplete without Ms. Huppert.
Ms. Huppert’s acclaim resonates far beyond Cannes, of course. She has earned 16 nominations for the César Award, France’s Oscar, winning twice. She has been nominated for the Molière Award, France’s Tony, seven times. And she was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018.
“Frankie” is Huppert’s first English-language entry at Cannes in nearly four decades, since “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980. It has French, Portuguese and Swiss producers — it is set in Sintra, Portugal, and Mr. Sachs wrote the script with a Brazilian, Maricio Zacharias. Huppert switches between French and English, in a cast that includes Brendan Gleeson from Ireland, Vinette Robinson and Ariyon Bakare from England, Pascal Greggory from France, Jérémie Renier from Belgium, and Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear from the United States.
Ms. Huppert’s character, Frankie, is a beloved movie star who is gravely ill and has gathered her husband and her ex-husband, her son, her stepdaughter and her family, and a good friend to be with her as she faces her own mortality.
Ms. Huppert was reached by phone in France, where she was rehearsing for a play. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
You once described yourself as an explorer. What was the adventure that drew you to “Frankie”?
Ira is known for exploring a very specific location — his last three movies were all in Brooklyn or New York. In this movie, he’s going somewhere else so I was really interested in doing a movie where he is displaced from where he’s used to being and I am going someplace else, too.
Was that part of Portugal as beautiful as it seems on screen?
It’s really very dramatic, and the way Ira films it, the landscape becomes part of the story, part of everyone’s emotional journey. No wonder Frankie gathers the family in this place; there is something magical in it.
Are you a different actor when performing in English?
In English, I’m a slightly different person, though it’s more relevant on stage than in the movies. Sometimes, my voice isn’t exactly the same. You become a new person in between you and yourself. It’s interesting.
With such an eclectic cast from so many places, did each scene play differently?
Yes, but also the gathering of many talents from different parts of the world is in the heart of the story. Ira didn’t do this randomly. It’s really part of the context of the story but in a natural way. There’s something with this idea that wherever you come from, you can all gather in the middle of nowhere and whoever you are and wherever you come from, what you go through is absolutely universal.
It shows that everyone is the same — in a good sense, not to abolish any of our differences, but to underline that everybody goes through the same journey.
This is a simple story with complex characters. Did you find that appealing?
I saw the movie a week ago and was struck by that. Ira brings an extraordinary intimacy to the screen. There is one drama, but around that nothing is over-dramatized so there’s a texture of great truthfulness.
While I was doing the film, I thought it was almost like I had very little to do. This woman is probably going to die, and she knows about it and everybody knows about it, so you cannot imagine a more dramatic or deep situation. It’s just about how people relate to this situation. But everything is subdued — everyone knows it, but no one really speaks about it, but of course whatever happens is in regard to this situation.
You’re renowned for your stillness on screen, a lack of overt expression. But in the film’s silent moments, you do let small emotional revelations play across your face. Is that difficult to convey, or does it come easily?
I’m afraid it does. The making of the movie makes it so. People think actors or actresses are acting in what they do, but most of the time it’s just the situation of the film that they’re reflecting. Near the end when she sees her husband, you see everything she sees — the future without her and the contradictory feelings as she faces the end of her life. The situation is so strong you just have to feel, to be. There’s nothing else to do.
So Mr. Sachs’ directing fits well with your acting style.
The simplicity he wanted us all to reach is not so easy to capture. It’s almost like he’s making a documentary. You really don’t see characters; you just see people. He’s very sweet and gentle, but he has such a strong idea of what he wants from you.
All actors are more used to making characters, to add a little something. Ira wanted to get rid of all fictional devices.
When I first meet Greg Kinnear’s character, Frankie has heard about him and she’s not very happy about his being there. The first time I said, “Oh, you’re the friend,” I was putting a certain irony to it. Ira wanted me to exorcise that. And what was quite remarkable was that the irony was still there with no comment from me.
Everything has to be as pure and bare as possible. Yet it can be very emotional. I really liked that. It’s so real in a way. It felt very natural.