The watcher being watched

Isabelle Huppert on Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Frankie and Gabrielle

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabelle Huppert with her Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde) director Serge Bozon
Isabelle Huppert with her Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde) director Serge Bozon Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The first time I talked with Isabelle Huppert at length was in Paris in 2006, when Serge Toubiana introduced us at the Cinémathèque Française (which had then recently opened in the Frank Gehry building at 51 rue de Bercy) private reception for Le Roman D’isabelle, La Femme Mystère. Over the years Isabelle and I have had conversations on her work with Catherine Breillat for Abuse Of Weakness, Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley Of Love with Gérard Depardieu, and Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde (Madame Hyde). In October of last year, I met with Isabelle Huppert in one of the suites of the Four Seasons for a conversation on her starring role in Ira Sachs' Frankie, co-written with longtime collaborator Mauricio Zacharias (Little Men, Love Is Strange, Keep The Lights On).

Ilene (Marisa Tomei) with Frankie (Isabelle Huppert)
Ilene (Marisa Tomei) with Frankie (Isabelle Huppert)

Patrice Chéreau’s Joseph Conrad adaptation Gabrielle with Pascal Greggory, how Greta Garbo and Fatty Arbuckle are juxtaposed in a scene with Greg Kinnear, and Brendan Gleeson’s interactions with Marisa Tomei in Frankie came up in the second part.

The Four Seasons on East 57th Street in New York, closed since the coronavirus pandemic first hit, has now reopened to provide free rooms for doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel. Governor Andrew M Cuomo announced that the hotel’s 368 rooms are all available for free to those who are working around the clock to treat coronavirus patients. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that there are more than 34,000 positive coronavirus tests and 776 deaths in the city.

Frankie (Huppert), an actress, has to sort out things with her husband (Gleeson) and ex-husband (Greggory). Her friend Ilene (Tomei), a hairdresser she met on the set of a Noah Baumbach movie we are told, seems to be a perfect match for Frankie’s son Paul (Jérémie Renier). Or so she plots. Only that Ilene brought along to Sintra, Portugal, her boyfriend Gary (Kinnear), a cinematographer, who wants to 1. Direct his first movie, 2. Move to Watermill, Long Island and 3. Marry Ilene.

Isabelle Huppert on Frankie with Antonia (Márcia Breia): “That's one of my favourite scenes. I mean nothing is said but you understand everything.”
Isabelle Huppert on Frankie with Antonia (Márcia Breia): “That's one of my favourite scenes. I mean nothing is said but you understand everything.”

Frankie has gathered those near and dear to her for a vacation. She knows she is going to die soon and wants to put her affairs in order as she sees fit.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Looking into the distance, Frankie is a film about the many small epiphanies a person might have when knowing that there's very little time left. The birthday with the 88-year-old [Antonia, played by Márcia Breia], for instance.

Isabelle Huppert: Ah, that's one of my favourite scenes. I mean nothing is said but you understand everything. It's almost like a funeral, this birthday party. Normally when you wish a birthday, you think that it projects you in the future. You think there's going to be another birthday next year. But for her, there won't be any next birthday. So it's more like a funeral.

AKT: With Pascal Greggory playing your ex-husband, I was thinking of the Joseph Conrad story you starred in together, Gabrielle.

IH: Yes, which we did with Patrice Chéreau.

AKT: Patrice Chéreau, yes, a beautiful film.

Ilene (Marisa Tomei) with Frankie’s husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson)
Ilene (Marisa Tomei) with Frankie’s husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson)

IH: Wonderful film.

AKT: That's how I imagined the backstory to Frankie, the century doesn't match, but anyway.

IH: Like our marriage was in Frankie?

AKT: Yes.

IH: Maybe not so dramatic. But yes, maybe I already had a lover. Maybe it wasn't Brendan Gleeson, maybe another one. But also after we split, he was loving men. He wasn't loving women.

AKT: It's nice, though, when you connect fictional past to a story.

IH: Yes, yes, yes, I see what you mean.

AKT: The possibility that that film [Gabrielle] came back to my memory because of the two of you as an ex-couple [in Frankie].

Isabelle Huppert as “the watcher being watched.”
Isabelle Huppert as “the watcher being watched.”

IH: In fact after that scene with the miracle water, something really harsh is going on between us. He says this very harsh and strange line "Not everything evolves around you". It's really really weird to say that. Well, in fact everything evolves around her in this moment. She is allowed to have people's attention for her. But the way he says it, it's like a reproach. "Not everything evolves around you." Which is also true, you know.

We were talking about the way she wants to control everything. The way she wants to transmit her money, the way she wants to organise her son's future and her husband's future. But do you say that to a … It's almost like - to confirm what you just said - it might refer to a previous life between the two of them where she might have been too self-centered and that's the reason why he finally decided to leave her.

AKT: The exchange you have with Greg Kinnear about the not-happening future film project works on a few levels. On the one hand it is like the birthday party, the idea of not going to be there. An almost impossible thought for all of us to grasp.

IH: But there is a lot more going on in that scene.

Isabelle Huppert on Frankie: “You have to remain in a huge ambiguity.”
Isabelle Huppert on Frankie: “You have to remain in a huge ambiguity.”

AKT: There is a lot.

IH: It’s also a way of telling him that she definitely doesn’t like him. I mean, he’s not a bad guy. The disease allows her to be almost regal finally. Really, this scene is extremely cruel, I think. Because it’s a way to tell him “You are a very little man.” Not a really bad person but with mean feelings in a way. Because it’s not the right moment to propose to me a film. She was really pointing out his little human ambition.

AKT: Watermill.

IH: Yes.

AKT: She can do this with him. She cannot do it with some of the other people. With him she can allow herself this cruelty.

IH: Yes, she doesn’t want him to be here anyway. He wasn’t supposed to be here. She says “It was supposed to be a family vacation.” She clearly tells him: You’re not my family, you’re not my friend, you’re not even my friend’s friend. Go away!

AKT: And it pearls off him. Okay, he’s leaving. Nothing really seems to get to him, which is partly why he can be treated that way?

Isabelle Huppert on Anne-Katrin Titze’s recorder purse: “It’s really beautiful.”
Isabelle Huppert on Anne-Katrin Titze’s recorder purse: “It’s really beautiful.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

IH: Exactly.

AKT: It is a very strange exchange overall. His opera singer without a voice project. He mentions Greta Garbo. And then you say “Or Fatty Arbuckle.” Of all people! Where did that come from?

IH: I don’t know. It was Ira’s idea. Against the idea of iconic reference. Again she breaks the dream. He comes up with this regal comparison, Greta Garbo. And she throws in Fatty Arbuckle.

AKT: The idea of matchmaking is part of her wish to control. The very end, very interestingly shown, is about watching.

IH: The watcher being watched, yes.

AKT: She is observing something that should perhaps make her happy, but doesn’t?

IH: That was a fascinating moment, you know. There’s so much in that little moment, so many contradictory feelings. It goes from jealousy to expectation to fear about her own death. It’s something she will never be able to share. She won’t be there anymore. It’s an amazing moment.

Isabelle Huppert as Maud in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse Of Weakness
Isabelle Huppert as Maud in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse Of Weakness

I remember Ira was afraid that not enough was going to be shown but I told him to trust me at this moment. I knew that you didn’t need anything else. You have to remain in a huge ambiguity. It was not about being in tears, it was not about being obviously jealous, it was not about witnessing a potential intimacy. It was a lot more. I think, if anything, it will be surprise.

AKT: Life is that way. It rarely goes as planned.

IH: At this moment, I think, you know what? She is the audience look in a way. Everybody thinks, oh my god, it might be totally other. It might go completely otherwise.

AKT: It almost switches into Peau d’Âne territory, with the dying queen telling her husband not to remarry unless it is someone as perfect as she is. It opens up to other questions. Thanks so much.

IH: Thanks to you. It was lovely. I love your purse, it’s really beautiful.

Read what Isabelle Huppert had to say on filming in Sintra for Frankie, Werner Schroeter's Two, Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Chantal Akerman, and loving clothes.

Frankie was originally scheduled to open theatrically in the UK on March 20 and is now tentatively set for May 22.

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