Isabelle Huppert always delivers. Whether she’s giving sharp, riveting performances in films like The Piano Teacher and La Vengeance d’une femme or stunning the world in head-to-toe Balenciaga on the Cannes red carpet, we can always count on Huppert to give us what we never knew we needed. Throughout Huppert’s illustrious career, she’s starred in over 110 films with directors including Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Hong Sang-soo, and Claude Chabrol. The impressive list of directors goes on and on, speaking to the caliber of Huppert’s performances and her thoughtful, smart approach to acting and cinema in general.
Her performances have earned her worldwide acclaim–she has 16 César Award nominations and has won both Best Actress at Cannes and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival twice. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 2017 for her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s film, Elle. It’s a complicated film with a knockout performance from Huppert, operating at the peak of her powers. When Huppert makes a choice about a film, you pay attention. So naturally, when she signed on to Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, it skyrocketed to the top of my list of most-anticipated films of the year.
In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Huppert plays Claudine Colbert, the intimidating (but hilarious) woman running the show at The House of Dior and a foil to the wide-eyed, eager Mrs. Harris. But much like Huppert’s previous roles, there is much more to Madame Colbert than we may initially see.
I briefly spoke with the legendary actress about the strong characters she plays, the political aspects of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, and the role of fashion in her life.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for joining me today, Isabelle, to talk about your new movie, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. I really enjoyed the film.
Isabelle Huppert: Thank you, thank you.
SC: Of course. What about this script and this role made you want to sign on to the film?
IH: Oh, beautiful dresses, beautiful hair and makeup, beautiful…(laughs) No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding because the role has a double side really. I’m not going to unveil the end of the film right away, but you know, the film has a double side, a double dimension, and that’s always interesting. And I thought the script was really well-written–beautiful dialogues, and very interesting relationships between everybody, between the people, and she’s very funny. So for me, it was nice to do (laughs).
SC: (laughs) Oh, I’m sure.
IH: Yeah, and I had several meetings with Anthony Fabian, the director, and I liked his sensitivity and his insight. I understood right away that he was a really good director from the first encounter.
SC: That’s always nice I think when you know that right away working with someone.
IH: Exactly. Plus eventually I saw Anthony’s two previous films, which are really very interesting. Especially the one he did in, in his country, in South Africa is really a wonderful film.
SC: Oh, yes. I watched that last week before I spoke with him and was quite taken by it.
IH: Oh good, yeah it’s really wonderful.
SC: One of the reasons I’m drawn to you and your films is that you always play complex women, often with a sharper side. There’s always more to the character than what you first see, and Madame Colbert is no different. You talked about Madame Colbert having another side–do you enjoy playing characters like her who surprise the audience?
IH: Yes, of course, and it’s not only me who gives her more than what she is. Of course, it’s always possible to add more to that. But, again, she has two dimensions in the film, and her encounter with Mrs. Harris makes her accomplish her whole journey in the film. Not only her, but many other characters in the film, you know, they really understand something about themselves, about the world where they live and the meaning of what they do. Madame Colbert is a catalyst, and she reveals people to themselves. And certainly, to Madame Colbert [herself], maybe the most.
SC: I completely agree. And you started to talk about this a little bit, but I like how the film depicts relationships between working women, while also having a political aspect.
IH: Absolutely! It’s what I think we all saw when we first read the script, this political aspect to it. So it makes it feel really interesting because it really says something; it says many things. It says how Mrs. Harris, you know, dreams about that dress. At some point, she thinks that everybody should dream about a dress, and the dress becomes the symbol of possible access to happiness, to comfort. It’s not the end of the world, you know; it’s just a dress after all, right?
So it becomes an object that defines the elite, but then it can also lead you to…that’s how the prêt-à-porter appeared in a way, because it’s also for everybody and she understands this at some point. I mean, I’m not sure she understands it, but it’s her whole experience which all of a sudden makes her think that, yes, that’s the way it should be. It should belong to everybody. Everybody should have access to happiness and to pleasure, not only the elite.
SC: That’s a great read on it. What starts out for her as this journey to get this dress that she thinks is just so beautiful in someone’s closet turns out to be more about her inner journey to the discovery that this is something that everyone should be able to have.
IH: Of course, of course, because the dress becomes a symbol as much as Mrs. Harris becomes that catalyst, as you say, from one little story. It could remain very superficial, “I want to buy a dress. I want to buy a dress,” but it becomes much more broad and much more political.
SC: Absolutely. And there is a striking contrast in the film right away when we meet Madame Colbert and Ada; when we see their first encounter. They’re very different, but there are also some similarities that you see later in the film, again, that I won’t give away. What was it like collaborating with Lesley Manville?
IH: Oh, it was really wonderful because (laughs) at the beginning, it was as you say, there was a lot of agressivité, a lot of fight between the two of them. And then at the end, there is something much more tender, much more generous. I mean, the two women are going to learn how to love each other.
But it was really wonderful because we didn’t have to discuss much about what we had to do. You know, it was very obvious from the script, from the dialogues, from the situations. You know, I was in my beautiful clothes and Lesley was in (laughs) in these poor clothes. And so everything was set from the beginning, you know, but, immediately, what was interesting was that you have one woman with these poor clothes, but with a lot of wit, a lot of insight, and the other woman with beautiful clothes, which are supposed to give her…well, she has power, but in a way Lesley’s character has more power, because she has the power of intelligence. And the other woman [Madame Colbert] has only the power of her situation and her power because she’s the servant to the boss, but she doesn’t have the power of understanding situations. Mrs. Harris has this power. So it’s interesting because of what power means exactly, what kind of power you’re talking about and they have two different kinds of power, obviously.
SC: That’s certainly a political aspect that I was thinking about in the movie–the difference in their power dynamics.
IH: Yeah, exactly, absolutely.
SC: And there are a lot of lines of dialogue in the film about invisibility or being the invisible woman working behind the scenes. This felt like such a commonality between Mrs. Harris and Madame Colbert.
IH: Yes, and in a way, it’s still the case now because I was watching a very interesting interview today by Sigourney Weaver, who was asked about a fashion show. I guess it was yesterday in Paris. I wasn’t here myself in any fashion show because I’m just coming back from Japan, where I was shooting my last film.
And on the internet, I was watching this small interview by Sigourney Weaver. I thought it was really interesting because she paid homage. She said, “the real people behind all this are the little women, you know, couturière,” and there was no better occupation. She said, “even I would like to be a couturière.” I thought it was so true and with such an insight that the real work and the real, in a way, power also was not what is visible. It was behind. It was all the women who made the clothes.
SC: I love that story. So in your life, outside the film, you have a pretty significant relationship with fashion. Thinking lately about Balenciaga specifically, how does a great item of clothing make you feel? Did you think your relationship with fashion informed your character or your process for this movie?
IH: Maybe, yes, because I saw so many designers and it’s interesting because even now, you know, there is a very specific way of relating to a designer. Not only back in the fifties, but in a way, the fashion designer still has a very special position with the people he works with. I think fashion in an actress’ life has a lot to do with all the rituals we have to go through. I like the clothes, and it’s interesting, and it’s nice to play the game as I do with Balenciaga, who is immensely connected. Yes (laughs), but talented. He has such a sense of the past and of the future. He’s really great.
SC: That’s great to hear. Thank you so much for speaking with me today and congratulations on Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris!
IH: Thank you. Thank you. Au revoir.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is now playing in theaters from Focus Features.
Photo: Dávid Lukács / 2021 Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft