Isabelle Huppert And Her Collaboration With Ira Sachs In Making Of Frankie
By: Amir Ganjavie
Frankie questions everyday existence against the sublime, with the unforgettable performance by Isabel Hubppert, the film creates memorable moments by confronting these two different sides
Frankie is Ira Sachs’ seventh feature film; a Sundance favourite who gradually found his way to European film festivals such as Berlin and Cannes. Premiered at Cannes, here Sachs tries to put everyday existence against the sublime, and creates memorable moments by confronting these two different sides. The performances in the film are remarkable, especially Isabelle Huppert who has given a unique twist to the film. We have seen several films in which characters were made for one specific actor or actress, and we see the same formula here. We have Isabelle Huppert who refrains from expressing her emotions, who feels unashamed of saying whatever she feels and does not seem to be bothered by hurting people with her words, and yet she is fragile in her own way. As Frankie was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Isabelle Huppert.
Amir Ganjavi, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): Why did you become interested in this film?
Isabelle Huppert (IH): I was interested in working with Ira Sachs even before reading the script and then when I did eventually read it I liked it a lot. Still, my first impulse was to work with Ira, whose films I had seen, like A Little Man, Broken Village – which is what it’s called in France - and Love is Strange. That was enough for me to think that we should work together. I like a lot of things in his films, like the atmosphere and the dialogue.
UM: What does remain in your mind about Ira Sachs’s directing style?
IH: This movie is, in a way, almost psychoanalytical in the sense that you see people say and do certain things on the surface and then you almost feel the unconscious level at work beneath that. Ira is very good at transmitting this double dimension of life. I mean, most of the time, you know, people are like animals to one another and it’s like Ira’s movies are trying to capture what they don’t say. They say things in a certain way on the surface but beneath that they want to say something else, which is sometimes more violent or more ambiguous. I think that the character Francoise is especially like that. On the one hand, she wants her son to be happy and to find a partner for him but, on the other hand, the way that she deals with him regarding money is quite harsh.
UM: And what do you think made Ira interested in working with you?
IH: That’s more of a question for Ira but maybe it’s because I’m good at saying certain things while thinking the opposite and portraying that contradiction on screen.
UM: Yes, I had a conversation with Ira at Cannes and he is very knowledgeable about French history and cinema. Did you have a conversation about French cinema and how you could fit into this film based on your previous French roles?
IH: Well, it’s obvious when you see Ira’s movies that although he’s an American from New York there is great influence in his work based on his knowledge of French movies. However, I think that it’s also very much influenced by Indian cinema because he keeps talking about this movie by Satyajit Ray which was an inspiration for this film in particular. Sometimes I also see some Japanese influence in his films, especially the way that he relates to nature. So yes, he is obviously a great connoisseur of all cinemas and that infuses his work.
UM: I also see that in Erich Rohmer’s films.
IH: Yes, I’ve read a lot about this, though I personally don’t totally agree. No, I never really see a connection with Rohmer. People are talking about it but it’s not the only film that people are talking about. Ira just came up with this comparison with a definitive movie and I think it’s maybe closer to this type of movie even though the turn of the film is really different. Still, as soon as you have two people speaking in a room they immediately make the Rohmer connection. I personally don’t see it.
UM: Ira also explained to me that he was very interested in not changing what was happening on a given day during shooting. For example, if it was raining then he wanted to keep it in the theme.
IH: Well, that’s the principle of cinema, you know?
UM: Well it’s challenging for continuity.
IH: Yes, that’s true. There were a couple of times when we had to leave because the weather can actually be really dangerous in that forest so they wouldn’t allow us to stay during a strong storm. But generally, when it comes to weather during movie making it’s a little bit of a compromise. You might expect to do your scene with sunshine but then all of a sudden you have to have to work with rain.
UM: Nature also plays a significant role in this film and sometimes we see that the actors are part of nature and it take precedence over them.
IH: Yes, because nature can also be like a metaphor for people’s turmoil. Sintra, which is where we shot near Lisbon in Portugal, is certainly very inspiring. It’s sometimes a little bit threatening with the way that the landscape can suddenly switch. It’s very beautiful but also very dramatic and you feel something very, very strong and sometimes even threatening in this place. So in that way, I think it really fit the subject of the film and it was a clear metaphor for the film.
UM: Was your character mostly built prior to filming or was it on set that you realized what kind of character you had?
IH: No, it was all in the script.
UM: So you had a conversation with the director?
IH: No, he just gave me the script and I didn’t have much to discuss. I mean, we had conversations before and we made it very clear that we wanted to work together so Ira said he wanted to write the script for me, which he did. Then he gave me the script and I read it and found that it was more of an ensemble picture that involved several other major characters but I thought it was a beautiful script. So that’s how it happened and then the script was translated into English. I was involved in some of the translation myself because I wanted the dialogue to be as close as possible to how I wanted to say things. Translation is always an interesting process because you feel exactly when it comes close to how you want to say things. When it comes from a different language, I think that I have a sense of how I really want things to be written so that I can say them as well as possible.
UM: You also mentioned that you like the psychological aspects of the film, which I like in a lot of your films. For example, Elle is one of my favourite among your films. You always show boldness in the presentation of your characters. Can you say more about your interest in psychology and whether you’re always very interested in that kind of film?
IH: Well, I don’t know what you mean by psychology. I don’t think that this is a very psychological film.
UM: You mentioned at the beginning that there was ambiguity and psychological aspects in the film
IH: No, I don’t think that I used the word “psychological.” It’s not really in my vocabulary. I don’t think that the film is psychological precisely because there is too much that’s left unexplained for the movie to be psychological. For me, being psychological means that you always find an explanation but this film is mysterious because it’s so complex and ambiguous. I think it voids psychology. So in the sense that psychology always tends to give you a clear explanation of people’s behaviour, this would not be a psychological film. I said that it is psychoanalytical, which is very different.
No, there is nothing here to do with psychology. I said that one is like people’s surface behaviour and it’s almost like they are driven by their subconscious. There’s always a contradiction between what you really think versus how you say things because on the surface you have to compromise and be gentle but it’s different underneath. It’s quite obvious, for example, in relationship with her son. She’s sweet and gentle but there is a lot going on underneath that is quite violent, such as the issue between them of money and the way she tells him that she won’t give him her money because she wants to use it for this foundation. It says a lot about her relationship with the son whom she loves. I mean, she undoubtedly loves her son but he is not like her. She has a crazy life with quite an elevated idea of what life should be and obviously her son has a different life in a different field. It’s her son and she loves him as a son but she wants to express the idea that she might not totally agree with the kind of life that he chose because she’s an artist and he’s in business.
UM: One aspect that I like about this character is that at the beginning you feel like she’s kind of a narcissist who thinks that she knows everything and likes to have power but as the movie goes on you see that she has cancer and is actually very fragile. We don’t see this fragility at the beginning and it makes her more interesting to follow.
IH: You’re not supposed to know that she’s ill at the beginning of the film. Instead, you find out gradually. Still, you can tell at the beginning that there’s something hidden but you don’t know what it is.
UM: How many takes does Ira usually do for each scene?
IH: It depends. Sometimes it’s a lot more than just one or two it’s not twenty.
UM: Did anything unexpected come up while working with Ira?
IH: What was interesting was that we all felt like we went with kind of what I call a flat way of performing. At least in my case it’s quite flat acting which I think brings a kind of unintentional humour. It’s also never the intention to not be funny either. You have no intention in the acting, which is interesting with this movie in particular. I think that these non-performing performances from everybody add to the reality of the characters. I don’t know how to say it but we don’t need to create characters. We are just more like people. I think that if we were coming up with characters and performances or whatever and all of these little things that you add to films most of the time it would not have been as believable. What Ira needed was something more flat and believable.
UM: You mentioned that Ira wrote the story for you. Can you say a bit more about that?
IH: Well, he also decided that she would be an actress and that was a way of creating an even bigger confusion between me and the role. That made it tricky but it was also very shrewd because in a way you believe even more that it’s my story since I’m playing a well-known actress doing a movie. People would say things to the effect that the character is me but of course it’s not me – it’s still the character. He wanted as much as possible to reduce this gap between the actor and the character.
UM: The relationship between your character and the foreign girl who is working on another film is also interesting since your character wants to introduce the girl to her son in order to become his wife.
IH: Yes, because she wants to make sure that everybody will be taken care of and will be happy. She also likes to control things around her.
UM: So you see this as a continuation of her need to be in control?
IH: Well, it makes her very active in her disease. Having this preoccupation with how her son will be happy with someone is also a way of staying alive until the end. Of course, her plan doesn’t succeed and the results end up being slightly different from what she expected because all of a sudden she has to view that perspective of the woman with her husband and not with her son in that final scene, which is really interesting. All of a sudden you find yourself in a situation that I wouldn’t call comedy but with a significant change of perspective. She thought the woman would be going with her son and then she finally has to understand that maybe she will go with her husband. It seems cruel but that’s life, you know? I love that moment when she looks at the two of them and understands that her plans might not end up as she expected.
UM: The other part in which we see all of the characters on top of the hills and everybody is coming to a reunion is also like an ending.
IH: Yes, because it’s also voluntarily theatrical when you have all of these characters on these big mountains overlooking the sea almost like they’re all on a stage. It’s extraordinary and really beautiful. I like the way it ends with her leading everybody down the hill. I think that it was not clear in Ira’s mind until the end who would descent first, whether she was going to be the first or the last. It turns out that she’s the first and she leads everybody down the hill, which I think is really interesting.