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Isabelle Huppert’s A Vision in “White”

Isabelle Huppert’s A Vision in “White” (photo)

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It seems strange that it’s taken this long for Claire Denis and Isabelle Huppert to work together on a film, but whatever the reason, it was worth the wait. Denis’s “White Material,” featuring the legendary actress as a white African farmer who insists on staying in her home even though her war-torn country is descending into madness and bloodshed, offers the director yet another opportunity to display her beguiling style, with its patented mix of intense physicality and ethereal stylization. And who better than the amazing Huppert, the thinking man’s goddess of the arthouse corporeal, to help bring this vision to fruition? It’s a performance that relies more on movement and gesture than it does on dialogue and story. Huppert brings an intangible humanity to this character – despite the film’s elliptical style, we’re riveted by this woman’s onscreen ordeal. The result is one of the actress’s greatest parts – saying quite a bit, given that the résumé in question includes such films as “Madame Bovary,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Godard’s Passion,” and “Time of the Wolf.” I recently sat down with Huppert to talk about Denis’s unique way of working, and about the passing of her great friend and collaborator Claude Chabrol.

What went through your mind when Claire Denis first approached you to do this film?

She didn’t really approach me. We’ve known each other for many, many years, and she’s a friend – she was an assistant on a film [“Return to the Beloved”] I did years ago. I consider her a part of my artistic family. I had read Doris Lessing’s first book “The Grass is Singing,” which she wrote when she was 27 years old, and I was interested in doing that as a film. Claire and I were seeing each other regularly and I asked her if she would be interested in doing it. She read the book, and she kept the idea of doing a film about a white woman in Africa, but she didn’t want to do the book itself. She thought the character was too much of a victim in the book. She wanted someone more contemporary, more active — a stronger woman. Then she had the idea of writing the script with Marie N’Diaye, a great French writer who is part Senegalese.

11182010_whitematerial3.jpgHow come the two of you hadn’t worked together before?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. She did other movies, I did other movies. But for “White Material,” I was a perfect go-between for Claire and her native land – I mean, she was not born in Africa, but she was raised in Africa. She knows how to speak about being a woman and being blonde in Africa – the fairness of the character, physically, really is what this film is about on some level. It’s about her color.

That brings up something I’m curious about. Your performances tend to be incredibly physical. Some actors will actually study and plan the way their characters will move well before they start filming. Is this something you prepare? Is it even conscious on your part?

No, it’s never conscious. But in this film, it was essential. I mean, that’s all it’s about. Even when [my character is] in tears at the end of the film, she doesn’t say, “I’m despairing,” or whatever. She just says, “I’m tired.” The film casts aside any psychology or strategy or complexity. She’s defined by her physical capacity to face these events. What’s interesting about it is that she’s fragile from the outside – others see her as being weak, and in some ways even the camera does. She’s like a twig. But when you come in closer to her, she’s very strong. In fact, Claire spoke of the character as almost a bionic woman – which was, of course, an exaggeration, but it gave me a real good idea of what to expect from her. She is, in fact, very physical, very daring – almost like a man. I had to learn to ride a motorcycle for this part. These extremes, between fragility and strength, I like that aspect of this character very much.

11182010_IsabelleHuppertWhiteMaterial2.jpgBut one could say the same thing about a lot of characters you’ve played.

Yeah, you’re right. It’s true of almost all of the characters I’ve done. But here it’s a bit different because of the cinematic way Claire has of showing it – because of the landscape and the nature around her. She has these roots, and she wants to stick to these roots. But Claire casts a different light on these mechanisms. She has a very different take on post-colonialism. For this character, it winds up being about identity and not possessions. In the end, you talk about being but not having, and that’s the main difference. That’s what’s really original in this movie.

Does that different take on the subject carry over to the actual way Claire works? How would you describe her as a director?

The way she works is the way she lives. Working with Claire, you have to be really available – you have to let yourself go into her rhythm. She’s very creative. She’s like a painter. She gives me the feeling that she has a vision and you have to be the witness to that vision. You don’t want to ask her too direct questions – “Why do you do this?” “What do you have in mind?” — these things I would never ask her. You just have to trust her and follow her. She’s very strong. She has a perfect sense of what she does. It’s not that she’s slow. You can feel that she’s elaborating something in her mind – sometimes she knows about it, sometimes she doesn’t. But working with a great director means to fit into their rhythm. From the very beginning, everybody has their own rhythm.

11182010_IsabelleHuppertWhiteMaterial6.jpgHow so? Describe her “rhythm.”

For example, we spent a lot of time going over costumes. It took us a lot of time before we got to that yellow dress with red sandals in the beginning, and the boots and the little shirt. You would not think when you see this character that so much time was spent on how she looked. All of that was not like this [snaps her fingers]. It was all thought out over a long time. I think the best way to describe it is that Claire is looking for simplicity, but she understands that it can take a lot of time and hard work and thinking to get to something that is simple. So, she tries a lot of things, but you never feel lost, as long as you trust her, because you know that she will find what she is looking for.

I want to ask about another iconic director that you worked with – the great Claude Chabrol, with whom you made a number of movies over a lengthy period of time, and who just recently passed away. I feel in some ways that your career and your performances changed when you did “Violette,” your first film with him. Among other things, people began to see you in a different light.

I was not so aware of how I was perceived at the time, but “Violette” was very important for me and my career. In fact, I remember I shared the Best Actress award at Cannes with Jill Clayburgh, who also recently passed away. That was a special moment. But Claude Chabrol loved the idea of me making a statement in a way with my acting. He wanted to really film me just the way I was, without asking me to be otherwise or different. That’s the best gift you can get from a director – he says, “Just be who you are.” That was the difference with him, and maybe why things seemed to have been different after I worked with him. And he did that with me in so many different movies – sometimes they were costume movies, sometimes they were thrillers or comedies. He would say, “Just take it and do what you want.”

11182010_IsabelleHuppertWhiteMaterial5.jpgI also feel like his films changed after he started working with you, too, in a way. We think of Chabrol as a great director of women and a director very sensitive to stories about women. And while there was certainly some of that in his previous films, he really seemed to embrace that identity around the period he started working with you.

It might be because he did more intimate movies before – some of them were masterpieces, of course, like “Le Boucher,” “This Man Must Die,” and so on — and then he did more political or more social movies during this time. With me, he did a couple of films like “La Cérémonie” and “Story of Women” that had important social meaning. But he was very versatile, too. We also did lighter movies, like “Rien ne va plus” and “Merci Pour le Chocolat.” I think that when you were working with him, his versatility was reflected in your own versatility. You could just be yourself, but you could be yourself in all these different movies, doing different things.

“White Material” is now open in New York, become available on demand on November 24th and open in Los Angeles on November 26th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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