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Entre Nous: A conversation with Isabelle Huppert

I walked into the hotel room in Chicago and saw Isabelle Huppert talking to her baby, and the first thing I asked her was whether she remembered the Chateau Benefiat on Avenue Solo Mio in Cannes.

"It was where I was staying at that year's film festival," she said. "What year was that?"

"I think it was 1978," I said. "You were in your early 20s. You were wearing a white dress and sitting in the garden, and you seemed so absolutely confident about your life that I was amazed. You seemed so young to have it all figured out."

Huppert looked down at her daughter, who was asleep.

"What did I have all figured out?" she said.

"Well, to begin with," I said, "you were the most successful young actress in France. You had just finished making 'Violette,' with Chabrol, and 'The Lacemaker,' with Goretta, and people were amazed that you had played a hard, cynical murderess in the one movie, and a naive, innocent child in the other."

"I was very lucky, to have two such roles," Huppert said.

"I asked you how you got them," I said.

"What did I say?"

"You said that when you were 16, you grew tired of school, and you went to the film studio in Paris and knocked on the door, and asked to be hired as an extra. And you were hired."

"That was what we did," she said. "Knocked on the door."

"And then you said that you heard about the two most desired roles that were coming up for a young actress – the lacemaker, and Violette, and you determined to get them, and you did."

"But first I was in a few small roles," she said.

"But always with your eyes on the eventual target."

"Yes. I told Chabrol and Goretta that I was the right actress for them. And they agreed."

"At that year's Cannes festival," I said, "the crowds were lining up in front of the theater to cheer you, and every television network in Europe was doing a special on you. It had all happened overnight."

"In less than a year," she said.

"You seemed absolutely self-confident."

"Oh, yes, I was."

"You told me your next picture would be directed by Ingmar Bergman."

"I told you that?"

"That's what you said."

"But, of course, it was not," she said, and shrugged.

"What you actually said was that Bergman would direct your next picture – but that he did not know it yet. You knew it, and he would find it out."

"Well, you know, that was the dream of an actress, to work with Bergman. Perhaps I thought that wishing would make it so. But it wasn't fulfilled. What you believe at a certain time is real, but only for that time," she said. "Now maybe I have another kind of self-confidence. At that time, I had never failed. Things were very easy for me. Since then, I have failed sometimes, and everything hasn't collapsed around me."

Room service arrived with pots of coffee. Huppert handed her baby to a nanny and began to pour the coffee, and I thought back to that sun-drenched day in the garden of the chateau above Cannes, when Huppert was so young, and was so filled with solemn self-confidence. It was a confidence I found touching because it was so innocent in the face of the world of the movie business, which anoints new stars every three months and forgets them almost as quickly.

Six years had passed. Now Huppert was in her late 20s. She could qualify for one of those catchall headlines in People magazine: Isabelle Huppert is back – with a new movie, a new lover, and a new baby! The movie was "Entre Nous," which opened Friday at the Fine Arts and is one of this year's Academy Award nominees for best foreign film. The lover was a solemn, tall young man dressed all in black, who walked in and out of the suite without ever quite being introduced.

"What is your baby's name?" I asked.

"Lolita."

"After the book, or the movie?"

"Just 'Lolita,' as a girls' name."

Huppert had flown to Chicago last November for the premiere of "Entre Nous" at the Chicago Film Festival. Although Lolita was only 6 weeks old, Huppert thought her daughter was old enough to make the trip, "because at this age they don't know where they are anyway, as long as the mother is near."

"Didn't you just want to stay at home, though, instead of coming all this way for a movie?"

"I came also for Chicago. Remember it is a free trip for me. I like the United States very much, and I come every time I can. I've been every place; I know the States like my pocket. Ten years ago, I visited 30 states. I know Chicago very well: I came here first on a theater tour, with a French company doing the classics. I remember the Michigan Lake was ice and I walked on it. I have been back since then. I walk around and nobody ever recognizes me; French movie actresses are not so well known here. I have been to lots of bars and restaurants and jazz clubs in Chicago. I could take you on a tour."

Huppert has worked so steadily in the years since her debut that it sometimes seems there are only two young French actresses, Huppert and Nathalie Baye (of "Martin Guerre"). Her most famous role was in an American movie, however: The ill-fated "Heaven's Gate," Michael Cimino's $36 million, three-hour epic starring Huppert as a prostitute in the American West, with Kris Kristofferson as one of the men obsessed by her.

The movie took months to shoot, with Huppert and the rest of the company camped out in a little Montana town. It closed in a week in America, after some of the worst reviews ever received by a major Hollywood picture.

"It didn't work, but I still think it was a great movie," she said. "I lived for six months in a small Western town, and the town and the horses and the mud are my best souvenirs of America. I loved it. In Paris, it played at the Cinematheque and people broke down the doors to get in. They had to schedule another screening. At two in the morning, it got a standing ovation."

"Yes," I said, "but don't the French sort of make a practice of liking what the Americans don't like, to prove how stupid the Americans are?"

"Hmmm." she said, "Well, I think one day you will rediscover that movie."

More coffee. We talked about "Entre Nous," a film by Diane Kurys, a Parisian who has been a friend of Huppert's for years. The movie tells the story of two young women, played by Huppert and Miou-Miou, who meet in the years after World War II. They become fast friends, they begin to feel trapped by their marriages and liaisons with men, they open a boutique together, they challenge the stereotyped roles for bourgeois women in France, and one of them prevails and the other doesn't quite make it.

"In France," Huppert said, "this is still a controversial movie, because women's roles are still more rigid there. I think American audiences see my husband as sort of a villain, rigid and insecure, but to the French, he is a good husband who works hard to provide a good home for his family, and is thanked only by an ungrateful wife."

"Some people," I said, "wonder whether the two women in the movie are actually lovers. The movie has scenes that seem to suggest that, but it's never made clear."

"No, and that's the big question mark about the movie. Diane wrote and filmed certain scenes suggesting this relationship, but there was nothing else written, nothing else filmed, and nothing else said. I did not play my character, in my own mind, as if she and the other woman were lovers. To me, it was as much the story of a friendship."

"Do you think a lot about a role before you play it?"

"Yes and no."

"Yes and no?"

"You do and you don't. You deny it, and admit it to yourself. I am always of two minds. Any actress is both very shy, and an exhibitionist. She wants people to look at her, but she doesn't want people to see her. She wants to be on the stage, but not as herself – as somebody else. Who would ever go into the kind of job where you are paid to have people look at you?"

"And yet you knocked on the studio door in Paris, and asked to be an extra."

Huppert said yes, she had, but after all, what did she know when she was 16? And now it was time to nurse her baby. I got up to leave.

"Even as yourself," she said, "you are playing a role. You are playing the role of yourself. When I give an interview, I play the role of myself giving an interview. It's best not to question too deeply, but just go ahead and do it. Look at Greta Garbo. She didn't know who she was, and she finally just gave up."

This conversation will be continued in 1990.

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