Behind Huppert’s many masks

Truth stranger than fiction in Jean-Paul Salomé’s tale of dirty tricks

by Richard Mowe

Isabelle Huppert as Maureen Kearney: “We wanted to represent her physically as close as possible - hence the blonde chignon hair style, the jewellery, the bright red lipstick and her glasses.”
Isabelle Huppert as Maureen Kearney: “We wanted to represent her physically as close as possible - hence the blonde chignon hair style, the jewellery, the bright red lipstick and her glasses.” Photo: UniFrance

“Bonjour - let’s go,” says France’s reigning art house queen Isabelle Huppert with a brisk flourish as we gather around to talk about one of the most incredible and intriguing roles in a career where an interviewer is spoilt for choice.

With her famed meticulous eye for detail, she plays a trade union leader in a French nuclear engineering company who became involved in a Kafka-esque scenario in which truth emerges stranger than any fiction.

Huppert has never met the subject of her portrayal of Maureen Kearney in The Sitting Duck (La Syndicaliste). She’s an Irish woman who has lived in France since she arrived as teacher in her twenties and married a Frenchman. She’s now 67, and has two children and two grandchildren.

Isabelle Huppert liked the fact that Maureen Kearney was “a complex character. At times she shows a certain fragility and at other moments an amazing strength.”
Isabelle Huppert liked the fact that Maureen Kearney was “a complex character. At times she shows a certain fragility and at other moments an amazing strength.” Photo: UniFrance

Kearney, who has been described as akin to a Gallic Erin Brockovich, discovers something is amiss in a nuclear deal between France and China and decides she cannot remain silent. Her activism, she believes, led to a brutal attack in 2012 in her home in the suburbs of Paris, when she was left tied to a chair with a chilling message - “This is your second warning, there will be no third.” When she reported the attack to the police, she was accused of making it up or staging the assault herself. The letter 'A' had been carved into her abdomen, and a knife handle inserted into her vagina. Traumatised, she had no memory of the assault.

“I didn’t try to meet Kearney, and she made no contact with me either,” said Huppert. “She had the good sense to realise that when you make a film, even if it is based on real case, there are liberties that can be taken. But we wanted to represent her physically as close as possible - hence the blonde chignon hair style, the jewellery, the bright red lipstick and her glasses. She rarely took them off so there was something ambiguous about her hiding behind them which suited the thrust of the narrative. It was all part of the artifice of creating someone on screen - almost like putting on a mask.”

Huppert, who turns 70 on 16 March, once told me “It's always a mask. Cinema is like an enigma. The characters are enigmas, too. For me, the real interest is to try to make visible what is invisible - what is behind the mask. I try to dig, to bring to the surface hidden layers. It's interesting to show the double meaning of a person.”

Director Jean-Paul Salomé recently worked with Huppert in a lighter register on crime caper Mama Weed (La Daronne), in which she plays a French-Arabic translator for the Paris drug police who becomes a savvy wholesale pusher. He felt she would be perfect to incarnate Kearney after producer Bertrand Faivre brought him the book about the case written by journalist Caroline Michel-Aguirre which he adapted in collaboration with Fadette Drouard.

Isabelle Huppert as she appears in François Ozon’s My Crime
Isabelle Huppert as she appears in François Ozon’s My Crime Photo: UniFrance

Huppert liked the fact that this was “a complex character. At times she shows a certain fragility and at other moments an amazing strength. Even her husband came under suspicion at one point, which must have been unbearable. She was quite a solitary person who gathered her convictions to protest. She wasn’t a conventional victim in that way. When you launch yourself in a cause like this you perhaps change your view of yourself. In the struggle to clear her reputation she becomes someone else - removed from her suburban lifestyle. After all she has a meeting with François Hollande [the former French president] and she knows a lot of very powerful people. Being a union leader is a powerful position.”

Salomé and Drouard met up with Kearney just once in person. “After that we kept in touch a lot by email. She doesn’t live in Paris any more so it was a practical consideration but also I had the feeling she preferred having the conversation by email. If I had any questions about things that I could not find in the book or about other people who were involved, I would ask and she would reply. She sent photographs of herself and that helped Isabelle build up her look.”

Huppert is partnered by Grégory Gadebois who plays her husband, a sound engineer. “As a couple they were an unlikely pairing,” said Salomé. “He was away often for his work and I was interested in the fact this couple managed to survive these incredibly difficult circumstances.” When Huppert found she was in the cast with Gadebois she was “so enthusiastic that it was if I had told her it was going to be Robert De Niro.”

The graphic gynaecological scenes during the police medical examinations presented no issues for Huppert. “They are just part of the acting game to her,” said Salomé. “I was the one who was more stressed than she was. You tell her what you want her to do and how you are going to film it, and she understands immediately and gives you exactly that. She has this ability to extract herself from difficult scenes.”

Another challenging aspect of the filming was “to keep a sense of ambiguity so that the audience is never quite sure of where the truth lies. Isabelle said she could play it like that and she pushed me to go further. We weren’t making a documentary. At a certain moment the investigators decide to put the truth of her testimony into question. I told Maureen Kearney that I would have to put some doubts into the minds of the audience even though I was absolutely convinced of the veracity of her testimony. There were very few things that we made up but we couldn’t explain everything.”

Kearney has been supportive of the film and has taken part in preview screening discussions with audiences across France. According to Salomé she has seen the film three times although the first time was a big shock as she was reliving what had been horrific events.

Director Jean-Paul Salomé on Isabelle Huppert: "You tell her what you want her to do and how you are going to film it, and she understands immediately and gives you exactly that.”
Director Jean-Paul Salomé on Isabelle Huppert: "You tell her what you want her to do and how you are going to film it, and she understands immediately and gives you exactly that.” Photo: UniFrance

The release of the film in France and its début at last year’s Venice Film Festival has stirred up renewed interest in the case. Lawyers representing some of the people featured in the film have been in touch with the producer. “There is a bit of pressure being exerted,” said Salomé diplomatically.

Huppert continues to live up to her reputation as a workaholic. When she played herself on Call My Agent!, a comedy series about a fictional talent agency with a phalanx of real-life stars, the joke was that Huppert shot one film by day and another by night. Currently she plays a flamboyant and bewigged thespian in François Ozon’s Thirties period piece Mon Crime and has joined veteran André Techiné (for the first time in the 43 years since The Brontë Sisters) in Dans Le Viseur with Hafsia Herzi and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart. In between times she is off on a theatre tour to Taiwan in The Cherry Orchard by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues, originally created for the Avignon Festival in 2021. And Benoît Jacquot captured the art of performance at Avignon in a filmed encounter behind the scenes with Huppert and Fabrice Luchini learning their lines in By Heart (Par Coeur).

She still manages to create space in her hectic life for surprises - and appreciates them when they come. She concludes: “You have to juggle the planning, of course, but I still welcome things that are not scheduled.”

The film will screen at Glasgow Film Festival on Tuesday, 7 March GFT 1 20.30, plus at Dublin International Film Festival on 2 March and Borderlines Film Festival on the 13 and 19 March.

It will be released soon in the UK and Ireland through Modern Films, with the date to be confirmed.

Richard Mowe talked to Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Paul Salomé at the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris last month

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