French actress Isabelle Huppert is known for being prolific. She’s made more than 100 films since the early 1970s, working in every genre and in collaboration with a dazzling array of major international directors that includes Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”) and Michael Cimino (“Heaven’s Gate”). But starring in three films that all screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — “Souvenir,” “Elle,” and “Things to Come” — is a heavy workload even by her standards.
Huppert, 63, is matter-of-fact about her reputation, which is elevated further by her fearless choices in roles and directors. This is an actress who, just a few days after leaving Toronto, was writhing on a Brooklyn stage in an avant-garde adaptation of “Phaedra.”
“I do it for myself,” says Huppert. “To go to Korea to work with Hong Sang-soo or to the Philippines to work with Brillante Mendoza — that’s part of the pleasure for me. Cinema is one giant room and you can visit everywhere in the world.”
“Elle” is getting the most attention from this year’s output of films, for understandable reasons. It’s directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” notoriety, with Huppert elevating the rape/revenge tale to something so audacious that it might earn the actress her first Oscar nomination. But it is the subtle, quietly poignant “Things to Come,” which opens in Boston on Friday, that may be the best showcase for Huppert, as it gives equal time to the actress’s ferocity and vulnerability.
Huppert plays Nathalie, a philosophy professor in Paris, married for 25 years to fellow academic Heinz (André Marcon) and tending to her aging, demanding mother (Edith Scob). Her life begins to fall apart as Heinz leaves her for another woman, her mother is moved to a nursing home, and her publisher drops her, leaving Nathalie adrift and searching for a new way to see herself. If that sounds like a Lifetime or OWN movie, consider that “Things to Come” is the fifth feature from 35-year-old writer-director Mia Hansen-Love (“Eden”) and it earned her the Silver Bear for best director at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
“Mia [has the] ability to create moments of pure delicateness. You can’t really call it joy and you can’t really call it sorrow — it’s a little bit between the two, which I think is very powerful,” says Huppert.
“I read the script and said yes immediately. It’s a lot about dialogue for me. The director, obviously, is a key element, but Mia’s dialogue showed the potential for irony and humor. She is brilliant; I’d seen her other films.”
Huppert says she doesn’t get many offers from directors in the US. But, as usual, she’s sanguine about it, shrugging off any notion that her eclectic resume reflects a more European sensibility. “Some American actors have a different way of being daring than we do in France. It took us a long time to revisit our past and to make movies about wartime. In the United States, there was ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Coming Home’ just a few years after Vietnam. Maybe in France there’s a better ability to explore complicated behavior because of our own failures and darkness.”
But Huppert is drawn as much to comedy as to drama. Besides the international accolades and edgy choices, it’s hard to resist asking about lighter moments, such as the viral video clip of Huppert looking bored while sitting in a car with Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin during Tomlin’s famous meltdown on the set of David O. Russell’s 2004 film “I (Heart) Huckabees.” Huppert laughs at the memory.
“There was nothing to do besides just waiting . . . it goes on and on and on. That’s why it really struck so many people,” she says. “I think it happened when David was on set; it wasn’t a great surprise for me because something happened every day with David’s films. He’s unusual and very gifted.”
In one of those convergences of art and life that seems to happen with actors, perhaps more so with French actors, Huppert played Hansen-Love’s mother in the Olivier Assayas-directed “Sentimental Destinies” (2000), one of the few films Hansen-Love made as a young actress. Despite that connection, Hansen-Love says she didn’t know Huppert well when, 15 years later, she sent her “Things to Come.”
“To me, she’s the greatest actress in France but she also seemed the one person with the charisma, the authority, and intellectual capability to play Nathalie,” says the director, who based the character on her own mother who is a philosophy professor. “Besides this, I was looking for an innocence and vulnerability that we have not seen in her roles lately. She is so young in spirit. I think I’m older than my age and she is younger than her age.”
Hansen-Love says any intimidation she felt about directing Huppert vanished once they set to work. “When she’s acting, she is 100 percent in the part and in the present,” she says. “When she chooses to work with a director, she trusts you completely; nothing else matters. That’s a high level of responsibility.”
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.