Embodying Tough Characters

Embodying Tough Characters

Isabelle Huppert evokes the sanguinity of a lady survivor

The question is: How does she do it? Yes, she is beautiful, Isabelle Huppert, but beautiful in the plainest way in the world. It is what is beneath the skin that counts, behind that chaste forehead––torrents and earthquakes and forest fires of the 77 deadly sins up to and notably including carnal concupiscence. Like Emma Bovary herself.

Every time, it is something new, a variety of characters, in more than 80 films now, all the way up through the 1970s (“The Lacemaker,” “The Bronte Sisters”); the 1980s (“Une Affaire de Femmes,” “Entre Nous”); the 1990s (“Madame Bovary,” “Love After Love”); the 2000s (“La Pianiste,” “8 Women”).

And here, with “La Vie Promise” opening March 5, she does it again, mysteriously, without, so to speak, lifting a finger, as Sylvia, a street corner hooker who can remember nothing as she goes on the run with a suddenly reappearing teenage daughter she loves, hates, disavows, and vice versa.

In her mother’s flat, the daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), has stabbed and probably killed a thuggish pimp in a moment loosely reminiscent of young Cheryl Crane’s 1958 killing of Johnny Stompanato in defense of mama Lana Turner. But that isn’t what’s driving Sylvia onward through this remarkable road film by 37-year-old director Olivier Dahan. It’s Sylvia’s hunger to reconnect, no matter how briefly, with the son, now age 8, she also spawned somewhere during the mess that’s her life.

“How many children have you had?” Laurence scathingly inquires.

Hitchhiking, with and without that rebellious, epileptic daughter through a terrain of motels, gas stations, corn fields, wheat fields, reapers, high-voltage transmission towers, and a big sky, much of it much resembling the Midwest––but in fact, Huppert informed an American journalist, a landscape “only 50 kilometers from Paris”––Sylvia happens upon the Georges Clemenceau Psychiatric Clinic in which she’d been confined during the birth of her son.

She sits on a bench in the garden of that clinic, as goats, chickens, llamas wander surrealistically here and there over the lawns, adding magic to what is already an extraordinary moment as the camera locks on the immobile, expressive face of a Sylvia unable even to remember that she was ever previously there. But a nun certainly does remember.

How does Huppert do it? She doesn’t know “but thank you,” she said. “That was a piece of cake.”

She didn’t mean it was easy, rather that it was an acting reward.

“Later, in the doctor’s office, she’s gradually putting every little moment back together,” she said. “Those things happen often, you know. Something rings a bell––but it’s a very vague bell.”

The actress herself has three children, she affirmed, two sons age 6 and 15 and a daughter, Lolita, 20, who has been with mama in three pictures. The father of all three offspring is director Ronald Chammah.

Is there any equation, any parallel, with the mother/daughter thing of “La Vie Promise,” in which Sylvia tries to pass 14-year-old Laurence off as “my little sister” and Laurence hurls barbs like: “You’re the worst person I know”?

“Not actually parallel,” Huppert replied, “but of course when [as an actress] you explore the mother/daughter relationship it always, I guess, brings you to what you experienced yourself. In that experience there is very little in common [with Sylvia’s], but in a way you always think of yourself as not being a good mother.

Then Huppert, dispassionately, said, “Guilt is, I guess, always a basic component of being a mother.”

Is Huppert speaking of herself, the journalist inquired.

A moment’s silence, then: “No. Speaking in universal terms… You go through a change of status. It’s not because you are a mother that you don’t be a daughter any more. Throughout your life you have to maintain this dual status.”

And Huppert and her mother?

A shrug. “I don’t know.” Another silence. “She was glad for me to be an actress.” Short pause. “A successful actress.”

In the movie, the Sylvia of youthful flashbacks sports around saucily in cowboy hat and boots, but now she’s a shopworn piece of goods with peeling nail polish, a tattoo on her left shoulder, dark roots showing beneath the blonde dye job.

That’s not the slim, trim, blue jeaned, reddish-haired, brownish-haired, bespectacled Isabelle Huppert who has come to New York to say a few words, answer a few questions, about “La Vie Promise” and director Dahan.

“He’s a painter, you know, and it shows. It shows in the music too.” Best of all in the climactic moment when, as a trickle of memory presses to spring free in the abandoned wreck of a house where Sylvia once lived, the sound track stunningly bursts into a strong-voiced black Gospel classic: “I’ll soon be free from every trial…”

Sometimes, Huppert said, this film reminds her of Terence Malick’s “Badlands,” and indeed director Dahan, in a press kit note, says that 1973 film, Ulu Grosbard’s 1995 “Georgia,” and Steven Kloves’ 1989 “The Fabulous Baker Boys” are movies–– American movies––“which mingle melancholy and optimism” just as he sought to do with “La Vie.” Dahan’s star has enormous admiration for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal in “Georgia” of a lost, hyperactive, chaotic young woman not greatly unlike Sylvia.

The Midwest-like setting of “La Vie Promise” is actually, Ms. Huppert clarified, a region called Vercor––“where the Resistance was very active––have you read ‘Le Silence de la Mer,’ by [Jean]Vercors? I keep saying Dahan brought America to France. The film was originally going to be shot in America, as far as that goes––somewhere in the South, like Louisiana.”

Huppert knew Dahan’s abilities from his films “Brothers” and “Already Dead,” but had never met him when he sent her a three-page summation of this new project.

“Which I really liked,” she recalled. “The atmosphere was there, the character was there, so it was okay.”

No, she doesn’t know anyone very much like Sylvia.

“I create it all out of myself,” Huppert said. “Mainly it comes out of appearance––makeup, costumes. Physical appearance is essential to that character. You can’t do a simple imitation when she’s that far from what you are. But still you have to feel inside a little bit of yourself, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Director Dahan and screenplay writer Agnes Fustier-Dahan handed Sylvia one particularly telling line: “I feel like I’m moving through someone else’s life.”

Don’t we all, the journalist remarked.

“Well, no,” Huppert said with asperity. “That was an unfamiliar thing for me to say. I’m too rational.”

What happens to this Sylvia after the end of the movie?

“She’s going to go back and be the mother again.”

And what happens to this mother and this daughter, three years, four years, five years into the future?

“That I don’t know,” the rational Huppert responded. “But remember, the title is ‘A Promised Life.’ That’s an ending with an opening, an optimistic ending.”

In one truly lovely moment, Sylvia throws a glance at Joshua (Pascal Greggory), the ex-convict who has given her and her daughter a couple of lifts and can’t somehow go off without them.

“Come dance with me,” she commands.

He says: “I don’t know how to dance.”

She says: “Me neither.”

And they dance.

Au revoir, Isabelle Huppert. Bon voyage. And thanks. Not just for this one. However you do it, keep right on doing it. Sylvia may have blocked out the past, but anybody who loves movies won’t.

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