by Paula Schwartz.
Isabelle Huppert was the big star attraction at the opening night of the 21st edition of Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance. Her film, Valley of Love, co-starring Gérard Depardieu and directed by Guillaume Nicloux, enjoyed its North American premiere at the popular film festival which traditionally opens with a star-driven selection.
In Valley of Love, Huppert and Depardieu play a divorced couple who meet up after many years in Death Valley, California at the request of their deceased gay son, Michael. In letters Michael sent his parents just before he committed suicide, he gives detailed instructions they are to follow during a week’s stay in Death Valley, where he promises to make a ghostly visitation in a farewell encounter.
The last time Depardieu and Huppert appeared on screen together was 35 years ago in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou in which Huppert played a beautiful woman who leaves her bourgeoise friends for a torrid affair with the crass and studly character played by Depardieu. Depardieu has packed on some pounds since then. And recently his notorious real-life exploits have overshadowed his acting renown and talent, which thankfully are still on display in Valley of Love.
For audiences who haven’t seen him on screen recently, Depardieu’s appearance is shocking. “I got fat,” says Depardieu’s character shamefacedly in the film’s opening scenes after Isabelle tells him he looks well. “As long as you are happy,” she replies. “How could I be happy like this?” he counters.
Depardieu walks around for nearly half of the fillm’s 92-minute running time shirtless and sweating. Meanwhile Huppert is as svelte and pencil-thin as ever. The contrast in size between the two is startling and I feared for Huppert’s safety during the emotional scenes in which Depardieu is called to swoop in and take her in his arms.
On the red carpet I asked Huppert why Depardieu was topless for so much of the film. Was it his decision or the director’s?
“Well it was hot,” said Huppert, who looked trés chic in a black pantsuit. In the film there is mention that in Death Valley the temperatures soared to 140 degrees. But the actress kept her shirt on: “I swim in the pool and he doesn’t, so at some point he has to get (relief)… You know, I swim and he takes his shirt off.”
Describing how it felt to be reunited on screen with Depardieu after 35 years, Huppert told me they have seen each other since making Loulou and playing a couple “felt normal, very natural.” They reteam again soon for Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde an adaptation of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde classic novel. “But I’m not the doctor,” is all she would tell me of the film.
As for his performance in Valley of Love, Huppert said she hoped Depardieu’s acting rather than his notoriety would be central: “I think they will see him in a very good film, that’s all, as a very fine actor.”
I asked Huppert for her impressions of Death Valley and her experience of filming there: “I had been there before, so it was not a surprise to me, but of course we stayed there three weeks, so that’s very different from when you stay only just a few days but it was quite an extraordinary experience, and I think the movie is the result of that experience. It’s almost a spiritual experience. We spent so much time in this place. It’s very unusual.”
As a two-hander that relies on the acting and presence of the two big-ticket French stars, the movie could almost be a play. “Almost,” said Huppert. “Like the landscape is like a big stage. Yes, it’s very true. Also, it’s very big. There is immensity to it, but in a way it’s also very limited because it’s always the same. It’s like infinity was limited in a way, and it’s exactly like a stage.”
Huppert praised director Guillaume Nicloux, with whom she made The Nun, and described his process. “I like the way he works. We don’t talk very much. He likes just to observe the actors and he sets them in a particular and very strong context and he lets them act and let’s them just be actually and then with his camera he captures this, which is nice.”
The line-up of films in this year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema is the strongest since it’s inception with insightful and fascinating films dealing with such diverse subjects as feminism, economic inequality and the plight of immigrants. And many of the stories in fine films like Fatima and Summertime are told from a female point of view. The festival also features work by many female directors which could teach Hollywood a lesson.
I asked Huppert why she thought Hollywood films lacked this kind of diversity: “I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist. We do have a lot of female filmmakers in France and usually most of the female filmmakers, they have some kind of certain topics and certain interests different from what men would have. It looks like we are not scared of that in France and maybe people are (here). You have a different idea of how films should be. Maybe we are less obsessed with this.”
I wanted to know if the actress had any desire to direct a film. “Not really, not for the moment,” she told me. “But maybe I will, just like this, in one second I may decide.”
Also attending the opening night was Grammy Award-winning, singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, who told me she is a long-time friend and fan of Huppert: “She’s one of those women in the movie business in France that I have a huge respect for because she’s a great actress and everything she does she magnifies it.”
The swanky after-party took place at the French Embassy’s Payne Mansion and featured French electronic music by Busy P, Boston Bun, Superpoze and Jacques. I last spotted Huppert at midnight at the loud and crowded party mingling and mixing with guests.