For Document’s Spring/Summer 2024 issue, the actor and director discuss the cinematic language, fashion, and revolution in their filmographies

“Maybe I have a twisted spirit,” says Isabelle Huppert. “But I never thought there was any perversity or brutality in any of the roles I’ve been doing.” A prostitute who poisons her parents. A piano teacher with bondage fantasies. A filmmaker exploited while recovering from a stroke. A woman raped who seeks revenge. These are the kinds of roles for which the French actress is renowned. But she plays them with a signature stoic subtlety. Any cruelty that they confront, whether in or outside themselves, is translated with compassion and dignity. Most of them also show incredible resolve. There’s a tension in how she holds this endurance in her physicality. Claire Denis, who directed the actress in White Material (2009), once described her as a “twig made of iron.” There’s something enigmatic, too, about her freckled, alabaster complexion. Like you can see right through her and still she remains a great mystery.

“I think a lot of your characters are quite romantic,” says Bruce LaBruce, who’s similarly made a career teasing out the philosophical complexities of deviance (which his new book The Revolution is My Boyfriend surveys in glossy uncensored splendor). Huppert and LaBruce are both children of Jean Genet and Georges Bataille, two giants of transgressive modernist literature. Huppert has starred in multiple adaptations of the authors’ works, including Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995), inspired in part by Genet’s play The Maids, and Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mère (2004), based on Bataille’s novel of the same name. Neither film is meek, taking on blackmail and incest, respectively.

LaBruce is a gay punk from Canada whose oeuvre includes 16 feature films spanning genre-homage to porn. Sometimes the zombies, cocks, and tattoos distract the uninitiated from his sophisticated understanding of psychology. His latest, The Visitor, which premiered this year at the Berlinale, follows the sexual spirit of an outsider destabilizing a rich London family. There’s a certain subcultural loudness to LaBruce’s work, but if you follow him on Instagram, where he curates daily odes to actors and films, it’s evident that he’s also a connoisseur of quiet feminist meditations anchored by women with formidable style and tenacity. This is a type of film at which Huppert excels. Throughout her career, she’s worked with a dazzling list of auteurs—Michael Haneke, François Ozon, Paul Verhoeven, Jean-Luc Godard, and Catherine Breillat, among them—and she’s continuing to helm the most interesting cinema being made today. She just tore up the festival circuit with her third film with Hong Sang-soo, A Traveler’s Needs (at the Berlinale it won the Silver Bear). She’s also returning to the stage this spring, reprising the role of Mary, Queen of Scots in Robert Wilson’s play Mary Said What She Said.

LaBruce chatted with Huppert about lesbian subtext and revolution, but mostly the characters she’s played. Along the way, they offer a wonderful watch list, spanning early Huppert, including The Lacemaker (1977), arguably her breakout film, to some favorites the two share, like The Swimmer (1968) and Bad Timing (1980).

Isabelle Huppert wears coat
and trousers by Balenciaga Fall ’24.

Bruce LaBruce: I just watched, like, 11 of your films in the past few days, so I’m immersed in Huppertism—that’s a word they use on these sites devoted to you. And I think it’s partly the way that you play these brutal or perverse characters. You have a calm appreciation for the character. If there are circumstances that are brutal, they go through them with a certain grace.

Isabelle Huppert: I think so.

Bruce: And people say about my films that even though I deal in a lot of extreme imagery, I have a light touch with extreme scenes—bondage or fetish. That’s because I appreciate the romance of fetish, and I think a lot of your characters are quite romantic as well. I don’t want to get too geeky about it, but I watched two films back-to-back of yours that were made back-to-back: The Lacemaker and Violette [1978]. The characters are so similar.

Isabelle: When I was doing Violette, I kept saying, it’s The Lacemaker who goes out from the hospital and kills her mother and father. For me, it was the same character.

Bruce: I think that’s true of a lot of your characters. One more example—I watched back-to-back Elle [2016] with L’Avenir [2016].

Isabelle: I love L’Avenir.

Bruce: They’re kind of the same character too, in a way. L’Avenir is a very gentle film. It’s a woman in a midlife crisis and her life is falling apart, but she just carries on and deals with everything with this grace.

And then in Elle, the character is very similar. She’s also divorced, she also has a son with [his own] child, and she’s negotiating this family. Both characters have mothers who are older women who have younger boyfriends who are problematic. Both of their mothers go into comas and die. But the movies couldn’t be more different. I mean, L’Avenir is such a content, contemplative film and Elle is a brutal film, in its way. But it’s the same kind of character.

Isabelle: The same way of being a victim and not a victim. And dealing with anyone, anything that comes their way. In L’Avenir, her husband leaves her. In Elle, it’s brutal, the rape. But in each case, yes, it’s a way of dealing with adversity with a certain poise and with a certain individuality. Not really asking for help. Not behaving like a victim. Being victorious in the act of being victimized. That’s maybe the beginning of winning, you know. If you never consider yourself a victim, even in the most negative situation. And that’s exactly what is in Elle, to the point that she wants to be her own judge. She doesn’t go to the police. She wants to be the revenger. Paul Verhoeven used to say ‘revenge film,’ with his strong Dutch accent. In L’Avenir, yes, it’s the same, in a way, but, of course, reads less brutally.

“Revolution can be very spiritual. It’s just being alert. Alert for yourself and alert for others.”

Dress by Balenciaga
Fall ’24.

Bruce: Yeah, they’re negotiating the same problem.

Isabelle: Each one wants to find that solution by herself. It’s beautiful, because in L’Avenir she finds the solution in a very philosophical way. She’s a philosophy teacher. She watches the world and she watches nature, she sees people around her, and she experiences something very spiritual. And actually, that’s what saves her, which I think is very powerful.

Bruce: I love her relationship with the student. They talk about ideas of revolution. She’s kind of gone through the whole May ’68 revolution. She’s at a place where she sees it in a different way than he does. It’s very poignant. What are your ideas about revolution, Isabelle?

Isabelle: What are my ideas? What a strange question. Well, revolution doesn’t always resonate in the same way, depending on the historical time and period, of course. Revolution can be very spiritual. It’s just being alert. Alert for yourself and alert for others. It’s a very big word, revolution. What do you think about revolution?

Bruce: I was thinking about in that film how she didn’t let the students cross the picket line. Her idea of revolution is teaching her students to think for themselves. Sometimes in my films, I have this theme of revolution. In a way, revolutions are doomed to failure because the people who are revolting are going to end up in the position of power eventually, and the oppressed will become the oppressor. And then the cycle will start again.

Isabelle: Not always.

Bruce: Not always, not always.

Isabelle: I just finished a very interesting film by André Téchiné which will be released next summer, My New Friends. In that film, Téchiné raises so many fundamental questions on how people can live together. I play a policewoman. Her neighbor is a young, what we call in France, ‘black bloc.’ You know, those young people who demonstrate and want to destroy things.

Bruce: Like Antifa, we say in America.

Isabelle: She becomes friends with him. At first, he doesn’t know that she’s a policewoman. He’s a young rebel, but he’s also an artist. It really says something about what it means to be an artist. Does the artistic gesture go with some kind of rebellion? Being an outlaw of society? Then, finally, she confesses to him that she’s a policewoman. Becoming friends and having a real exchange, it changes their lives, both of them. And then in the other film I just did—the one that got the Silver Bear in Berlin—my character is a very crazy woman. She says she’s a French teacher, but you don’t exactly know what she is. She’s a little like a fairytale character. You don’t know if she’s the devil.

“It’s not necessarily small films against big films. You also can have a language in big films. It’s being personal and dealing with something that can make you think.”

Dress by Balenciaga Fall ’24.

Bruce: This is the Hong Sang-soo film?

Isabelle: Yes. In it, she meets people. She teaches them French, but through the teaching of the language, she, in fact, teaches them another kind of language. And that is the way they want to reveal them to themselves. So she forces them to express certain things through teaching French. It’s more philosophical. It’s about Who are you? Who do you want to be? Who can you be? I think he’s a genius, Hong Sang-soo, really.

Bruce: You’ve talked about how you like his process. What is his process?

Isabelle: It’s like anti-film, anti-story, anti-character, and at the end, you have a whole statement about the world. What does it mean to be together? What does it mean to have your own language? What does it mean to be strangers to each other? Because my character is French and surrounded by Korean people, it raises a lot of essential themes about who we are and who we don’t want to admit we are.

Bruce: He shoots in only a few days?

Isabelle: This was my third film with him. The first one was called In Another Country [2012]. We shot in Korea, but outside of Seoul. The shoot was nine days. And then the second one was called Claire’s Camera [2017], which we shot in Cannes. It was six days. This one is called A Traveler’s Needs [2024]. We shot for 13 days, which was a lot for Hong Sang-soo. It’s like a super-production for him.

Bruce: And he does everything himself, too?

Isabelle: Everything himself! In the other two, he still had a cameraman and a continuity person. This time, there was no cameraman, no continuity person. Just a girl for the sound. That’s it. He was doing the lights. The camera is tiny, so you forget about it.

Bruce: I see.

Isabelle: If movies are still movies. If they’re not replaced by just images, one after the other. If cinema is still a language. With this language, you still can say so many things. It’s not necessarily small films against big films. You also can have a language in big films. It’s being personal and dealing with something that can make you think.

Coat by Balenciaga
Fall ’24.

Bruce: I wanted to ask you about this film that really, like, blew me away: Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mère. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. I watched it last night and it really affected me. I was crying during the credits. The final scene with the mother and the son is so shattering. And of course, it’s based on a Bataille book. It was so intense. It also seemed like it was just one single camera and a simple process. What are your memories of making that film?

Isabelle: I have a good memory of making the film. It was a long time ago in Spain. I think adapting a great book—like Ma Mère by Bataille, who is such a great author—to the film language is not easy. This succeeded. But you have a certain feeling and impression when you read it and a different feeling when you watch it. There’s something so—I don’t know how to describe it—something so far from being realistic in the book. And then all of a sudden it becomes real. It had to go through a very carnal, emotional expression. Whereas the book is far from that.

Bruce: There’s that amazing scene where Pierre is running on a street in the rain toward the camera. And he’s actually reciting passages from the novel. It’s a beautiful way of making something cinematic that’s very, as you say, literary. I appreciated the way he managed to make a great work of literature visual. And also even banal sometimes.

Isabelle: I should see it again. I haven’t watched it for so many years. I really enjoyed doing it, and had a good relationship with Christophe.

Bruce: It’d make a good double bill with Bertolucci’s La Luna [1979] for obvious reasons. It approaches the same subject in a completely different way. When I saw you in the vault at Criterion, you mentioned that Bad Timing is one of your favorite films. And it’s also one of my top ever, and I wanted to ask you about that. I adore that film.

Isabelle: I haven’t watched it for a long time, but I remember when I saw it for the first time; I loved Theresa Russell. We haven’t seen her enough since. My son and I have two movie theaters in Paris. I should tell my son to program this film, so I can watch it again. When you spoke about Bad Timing, I thought also about The Swimmer.

Bruce: I’m a huge Frank Perry fan. It’s another good example of taking a work of literature, from the John Cheever story, and turning it into something very successfully cinematic.

Isabelle: I’ve read other short stories by John Cheever. And I’m sure you can find some other sources of inspiration in his work. Alice Munro short stories also.

Bruce: I grew up in Canada, 50 miles away from where Alice Munro was born. So when she described her life that’s very much like what my childhood was like in that area.

Isabelle: I have this project in the States based on a short story by Alice Munro. There’s lots of difficulty. It’s not the kind of film that you do easily, but I hope it happens. Where are you now?

Bruce: Toronto.

Left: Dress and shoes by
Balenciaga Fall ’24.
Right: Jacket, trousers, and shoes by Balenciaga
Fall ’24.

Isabelle: I did Greta [2018] by Neil Jordan in Toronto. We shot in Dublin and in Toronto.

Bruce: Oh, nice. What did you think?

Isabelle: I love Toronto. I’d been there many times also for the festival. But when we shot on location there, I got to see a lot of the city. It was a very nice time.

Bruce: It’s a real film town. That’s how I ended up being a cinephile. I was a film student in the ’80s at York University, and my professor was Robin Wood, the famous critic, who was a favorite of Chabrol and Truffaut. At the time, they had so many great repertory theaters here dedicated to arthouse cinema. As a student, I would see all the artists coming from Europe that they would immediately play at these cinemas. So I’d see all your films when they came out. Like Coup de Foudre [1983], which is a great film. I was obsessed with it when it came out. I saw it several times. It’s such a great feminist film.

Isabelle: Yes, very feminist. And, you know, it’s very interesting because it’s one of those films where there is a kind of subtext, which is very much there, but not really pointed out. The relationship between the two women. We never really spoke about the possibility of homosexuality between the two women and yet…

Bruce: There was never an overt conversation about that?

Isabelle: No. Never. It’s like in Violette, there was this suspicious relationship with the father, but the language was strong enough to make this come to the surface, without us even being completely aware of it.

Bruce: Robin Wood was famous for his analysis of the homosexual subtext in Howard Hawks’s movies. It’s very strong but not articulated.

Isabelle: It’s fascinating. There was something beyond us, you know, which made us play it clearly enough to make that present.
Bruce: I wanted to ask you about fashion in your movies. You’ve talked about how you’re not a method actress. I think the style of the character is very important to you. Is that true?

Isabelle: You mean the way they are dressed? It is essential because you say who you are, or who you don’t want to be, by what you wear.

Bruce: Violette’s such a high-fashion movie. The style is stunning. Every frame could be a beautiful spread in a fashion magazine. Your character in Coup de Foudre opens a fashion store. And I was reading that your great-grandmother had a fashion house?

Isabelle: Absolutely. Yes. The Callot sisters. They were very famous at the beginning of the century, and then crashed after the big crisis in France.

Bruce: Maybe something in your genes, perhaps? The fashion.

Dress by Balenciaga
Fall ’24.

Isabelle: Ah, yes, maybe. In our childhood, we always heard about the Callot sisters. Most of the time, our mother would say, ‘You don’t have the Callot spirit,’ which means you don’t have a sense of humor. They used to have a place in the Eighth in Paris where, eventually, Hubert de Givenchy set up his own company. My father at some point asked him to keep the Callot sisters’ memory present in the building, so at the time Givenchy was there, there was a plaque. He had the celebration of the Callot sisters.

Bruce: It sounds like it would make a good movie.

Isabelle: It could. You’re absolutely right.

Bruce: I wanted to ask you about your theater stuff. I was really interested when you played Mary, Queen of Scots in Robert Wilson’s Mary Said.

Isabelle: I’m doing it again in London at the beginning of May, and then I’ll be doing it in New York soon. You should come.

Bruce: I’d love to. I love Robert Wilson. It just sounds like it was such an extraordinary challenge to do that piece because it’s you onstage for an hour and a half.

Isabelle: Yeah, it’s a monologue. People think it’s very challenging. But, you know, like everything, when you do it, it’s different. Like in sport when you run. The energy is different. I never end up being exhausted. I think I’m pretty privileged to do it, too. Because, as you said, Robert Wilson is a genius. I did Orlando with him a long time ago.

Bruce: I read you might not have met him at all, because there was a dinner party, and you almost didn’t go because you were feeling tired.

Isabelle: Yes! It’s true. Maybe I would have met him anyway, eventually. But it was very small, just three people or four people. He had just done Orlando in Berlin with a great German actress called Jutta Lampe. And then he looked at me and he said, would you do it in French in Paris? And I said yes. That’s how it all started.

Bruce: Amazing.

Hair John Nollet for Maison de Beauté Carita. Make-up Anthony Preel. Photo Assistant Will Grundy. Special thanks Hejer, Thomas Rom, Flavie Costamagna at Magna Presse. Stylist Assistant Mayu Kawasaki. Hair Assistant Pierrick. Production Director Lisa Olsson Hjerpe at Chapel Productions. Photographed at Hotel Eldarado and private residence by interior designer and architect Dora Hart. Production Assistants Giulia Donati, Thibault Juilliard.