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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.