Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême 2016

Isabelle Adjani, Sandrine Bonnaire, Romain Duris, Isabelle Huppert, Sophie Marceau, Lambert Wilson and Catherine Corsini were just some of the talent that attended the 9th Festival Film Francophone…

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Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême 2016


Virginie Efira in ‘Victoria’ and also co-President of the Jury

Isabelle Adjani, Sandrine Bonnaire, Romain Duris, Isabelle Huppert, Sophie Marceau, Lambert Wilson and Catherine Corsini were just some of the talent that attended the 9th Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême, France’s one festival that only screens films from French-speaking countries.

It’s the third year I attended year’s Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême. The festival was set up by Dominique Besnehard and Marie-France Brière (a documentary maker). Lesser-known in the Anglophone world, Dominique Besnehard is a much-loved character in French cinema. He is an actor (he played Suzanne’s highly-strung brother in Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours), a writer, a producer, casting director, and talent agent who discovered Beatrice Dalle, Cecile De France, Emmanuelle Seigner, and many others.

Dominique Besnehard

Photo-call du jury avec Gilles Jacob (right), Dominique Besnehard (centre) et Virginie Efira (left) lors du Festival du Film Francophone d’Angouleme Photo © Yohan Bonnet

In short, Dominique Besnehard is something of a god-father to the stars, and it is largely down to him so many attend the intimate festival in Angoulême, located in the Poitou-Charentes region of southwestern France. Angoulême is a small city with a population of just 43,000 and famous for its annual comic book festival.

An audience ready to respond …

This year’s Festival Film Francophone d’ Angoulême, was a programming triumph that brought tears and heated discussion at the end of a difficult summer in France. Jihadism, Online manipulation, disabilities and borders and boundaries (concerning immigration and complicated love) took the audience and the jury on a six-day epic journey.

On the streets, the temperature rarely fell below 35 degrees. People sought cool and shade in the cinemas, and it is there that they cried.

Sandrine Bonnaire

Sandrine Bonnaire Photo © Yohan Bonnet

Throughout the week, there were a number of ‘Avant Premieres’ (films soon to be released in France). L’Odyssée officially opened the festival. It’s a robust biopic about the diver and documentary maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau (played by Lambert Wilson), a man who first brought the depths and mysteries of the ocean to the people’s television screens in the 1960s.  Jerome Salle’s film was a fitting start, symbolic of the power of the festival, which dived the audience deep into its programme.

The co-president of the Jury, Belgian actress, Virginie Efira starred in Victoria, another ‘Avant Premiere’, this time about the complicated life of a single mother and lawyer. Directed by Justine Triet, who is a relatively ‘new’ filmmaker with a fresh voice and gift for comedy. It was great to see a cameo role by a friend, Vincent Dietschy.

The controlling power of the internet underpinned two films. Submitted to festival’s ‘La Compétition’ director Yan England’s Quebec film, 1:54, starring Antoine Olivier Pilon (who gave the luminous performance in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy two years ago). Pilon picked up a ‘Valois Acteur’ award at the end of the festival for his performance as Tim, the gifted student (with a strong talent for making explosives, and athletics) whose best friend is horribly bullied at school. After a certain disturbing event, Tim too is bullied via social-media and by the same perpetrator. The shakedown is tragic.

Le Ciel Attendra (an Avant Premiere) showed a different kind of internet manipulation: the tales of two middle class Parisian girls who are groomed online, initially through flattery on Facebook, by jihadists. Sandrine Bonnaire plays one of the girls’ mothers; and the film was introduced by an emotional cast and received a standing ovation. This was my favourite film largely because it resisted judgment, remaining always faithful to the point of view of the two ‘victims,’ their needs and their fears. At its heart Le Ciel Attendra is about identity, and is certainly one I will take my teenagers to when it is  released (hopefully) in the UK.


1:54: Lou-Pascal Tremblay, director Yan England and Antoine-Olivier Pilon Photo © Yohan Bonnet

Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud is a very different film, and touched me in the way that a piece of good social-realism should, despite being a comedy. The scenario concerns an unconventional dad (played by France’s well-known comedy-actor Gustav Kervern) who is raising his two daughters alone on very little money. The girls receive huge amounts of love, but perhaps not the best diet and have a tendency to wander off, several times finding themselves in the police station. A social worker is involved and things become more complicated when one daughter develops Tourettes syndrome. Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud is visually hilarious without being slap-stick, and the story has enough melancholy beats to take you, occasionally, into a dark place.

Hedi (a Tunisan/Belgian/French production directed by Mohamed Ben Attia) was memorable for its treatment of need and ambition and its effect on love. Hedi (Majd Mastoura) is a young man who works as car salesman and is arranged to marry a beautiful young woman. As preparations move ahead, Hedi goes through a crisis: he hates his job, wants to become comic book artist and questions his needs.

Mastoura’s face has the beauty of a quiet, timid stream and his expressions are its gentle turns. Understandable then, that he would fall in love with the energetic, warm-hearted dancer, his personality opposite, and his wide ocean. Will Hedi have the strength to break free from his family’s expectations?

I saw two films from Catherine Corsini ‘Le Focus’ part of the festival. Corsini is a director whose films address friendship and sexuality, its power, emotional complexity and grey desires. I have written about Partir (Leaving) at 52frenchfilms, and also La Belle Saison (Summertime), her latest film, a few weeks ago. La Belle Saison screened at the festival and I decided to check out: Les Ambitieux and La Répétition (starring Emmanuel Béart) and also attended the ‘Classe de Maître’ where Corsini spoke about each of her films.

A unique festival …

Catherine Corsini personally introduced each of her films with disarming openness, inviting the audience to feel free to speak to her if they saw her in the town.


Catherine Corsini Photo © Yohan Bonnet

Corsini’s address summed up the spirit of the festival. Discussion buzzed like flies in the heat: everyone was keen to talk about the films. Cinemas were packed, including older ladies from the town who sat alongside members of the jury and those who worked on the films, all sharing their opinions. It reminded me of the scene in Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert where Delphine overhears a group of people by the beach discussing Jules Verne’s novel of the same name.

The audience is as integral to the cinema experience in Festival Film Francophone d’Angouleme as its stars. Dominique Besnehard and Marie-France Brière have worked hard, alongside the city to achieve something that is truly special.

A festival that reflects the spirit of Angoulême and screens films that inspire our imaginations, push boundaries, challenge opinions and soothe our hearts.

For a full list of films screened in the competition and the winners, please visit http://www.filmfrancophone.fr


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Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table! (Me, Myself and Mum)

les-garcons_et_guillaume mum and son.jpg

As his mother and himself, Guillaume Gallienne

Guillaume Gallienne’s face is pale, soft rising dough that’s been squished with an insensitive fist, in this comic exploration of sexuality, gender and self-acceptance. Written, directed and starring Guillaume Gallienne (as himself, and also his mother) Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table! is based on his upbringing in a privileged, dysfunctional family.

Guillaume is one of three boys, but his mother sees him as the different one: she sees him as her girl. Guillaume likes literature, is useless at sport and is the kind of boy to quiver at a falling leaf. Guillaume is confused, charmingly so, and he adores his mother.

Gallienne’s comic interpretation of his mother reveals Guillaume’s disarming blindness: she is anything but lovable. Madame Gallienne is irritable, bosses the housekeeper and reads romance novels. And of course she chain smokes, flicking her opinions with cigarette ash, showing little eye contact. Gallienne keeps his mother at the end of a long lens, an aesthetic distance where she is kept in Guillaume’s mind a beautiful, unobtainable butterfly. Up close, we know the truth is an unpleasant moth.

Guillaume is a pawn moved by the force of his father (and sighing-submission of his mother) from one ‘improving’ position to another. A summer of culture in Spain, and then, to work on his ‘manhood,’ a French boarding school. Here, nighttime activities in the dormitory, and toilets, make the experience short-lived. His parents then send him away to school in England. To the British audience, there are plenty of stereotypes, but it doesn’t matter, as by now we feel connected to Guillaume’s self-deprecation. We’re content to lurch forward with him in his hilarious decathlon of failure and confused sexual experience.

Guillaume tries his best to be gay, he really does, and although this quest forms the comic thrust of Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table! the real charm rests in Gallienne’s poet’s sensibility. This is a cinematic sonnet to the love of women: their unobtainable beauty, the allure of their costume, and a distant mother. Guillaume is in awe of women, both understood and diminished by them and his performance is one sustained by tenderness and muscle.

Director: Guillaume Gallienne (2013)

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La Belle Saison (Summertime)

Love between two women is a swaying hammock in Catherine Corsini’s tale of complicated romance in the wake of 70s feminism. Carole (Cécile de France) is the sunshine with whom Delphine (Izïa Higelin, a popular singer in France) understandably falls in love when she leaves her parent’s Limousin farm to pursue a life in Paris.

cecile de france - belle saison

Carole (Cécile de France)

The two meet in Carole’s feminist-group street-prank: running down a boulevard and pinching men’s bottoms. Carole is feisty and charismatic, and emboldened by her new friends and experiences, Delphine makes a pass at her. The two tumble into infatuation.

When Delphines’s father becomes ill and is unable to work she returns to the farm to help her mother. It isn’t long before lovesick Carole heads south too, and moves into the farmhouse as ‘her friend.’ The two spend a lot of time naked, farming together and trying to hide their relationship from the villagers.

Although Corsini digs deep and shows how duty and desire conflict, La Belle Saison is a light breeze, resisting at all times political polemic or a social history lesson about women’s rights.

Higelin’s performance is mellow and reflective, a cool pool that contrasts with de France’s impish energy. De France is resplendent with all the beauty and spin of a catherine-wheel. She’s giddy with love and intellectual passion, given to dancing and tactlessness.

Carole and Delphine are both heroines: brave, flawed and as radiant (and brief) as Summer.

Director: Catherine Corsini (2015)

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Coco Before Chanel

chanel with her dress

Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) invents with an objective eye

Coco Before Chanel is a cinematic chessboard of personal politics and black and white design.  Of wild horses, reluctant pawns and bishops who refuse to oblige. The queen is of course Audrey Tautou’s Coco; and she observes their moves.

Director Anne Fontaine’s vision of Coco’s life before her enormous success is clean-lined and striking (like a Chanel dress), yet is as familiar as a photo-album.

Evocative images flick from one to another in the scenes that show her childhood: a young Coco in the Convent school, looking at the white sheets on dormitory beds and nuns’ black habits, and Coco gazing at other children being collected for the holidays, leaving her alone.

Tautou and Fontaine establish Coco as an outsider, a stubborn pragmatist who finds it difficult to fall in love. As a young woman she worked as a singer, the kind that sits on men’s knees and drinks champagne. ‘Love is best in fairytales. There is no heart,’ Coco quips to her best friend, shortly before cutting the bodice of her dress, so she can freely move. For Coco, ‘no heart’ allows her to commit to design, releasing her clients from restrictive clothing and setting them free.

Of course, Coco does fall in love. And of course, he’s a man whom she cannot have, and so she remains his mistress. Tautou gives a performance regal and melancholy: an emotional retreat from which Coco can invent with an objective eye.

Director: Anne Fontaine (2009)

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Paris meets Japan: the Price of Liberty

Troubled love on a melancholy Seine, angst on open boulevards, and the clashing of enquiring minds in cafes: for decades French film-makers have shown us Paris through the lives of its inhabitants.

opera pic - parisiennes

Parisiennes is different because it shows us the capital through the eyes of a Japanese woman.

Directed by Slony Sow, Parisiennes (which won the ‘Best Foreign Film’ award at the Reno Tahoe Film Festival in the USA) follows Kyoko (Eriko Takeda), a young Japanese writer who is in Paris for just a few days. While searching for a muse to inspire the main character of a book she is writing, Kyoko encounters numerous Parisian women, including a homeless person, a stylist, a public toilet attendant and an opera singer.

Sow’s first feature film was shot after the acclaimed short Winter Frog, a simple story about a Japanese woman who helps a viticulturist (Gérard Depardieu) to mourn the death of his wife. Also starring Takeda, Winter Frog screened at 350 film festivals and won 37 awards.

In both films, there is a meeting of French and Japanese cultures: an elegiac understanding of each other, of difference and of themselves.

I met Slony and Eriko in a café Paris around the corner from the Place Vendôme in the 1st arrondissement. We spoke about the swift making of Parisiennes before the 2015 attacks, Eriko’s experience of Paris and the illusion of liberty.

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Gerard Depardieu in Winter Frog 

HVK: Why did you choose to show Paris through the eyes of a Japanese woman as the lead character, instead of a Parisian?

Slony: When Eriko first came to Paris her head was full of clichés. She thought every Parisian was like Coco Chanel. For me, the Japanese delicatesse is a good drama. The culture shock creates a good story. The Japanese are so outside the ‘accidental’ way. They are not spontaneous. In France we are very spontaneous. If you want to say something, you say it, even if it is sometimes better to keep your mouth shut. The Japanese are reserved. It is very difficult to know their thoughts.

HVK: In Parisiennes, Kyoko meets characters not normally represented in cinema. Was this a conscious decision?

Slony: I am Parisian and grew up in the western part. Throughout my life I have lived in every arrondissement. It’s my city. When Americans make movies about Paris it is always a cliché. They show it as romantic and glamorous, like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which is very much his imagination of Paris. I love that film but I couldn’t make a movie about that.

Parisiennes is about the women I know, many of whom represent my mother, my sister, my friends. All the women in Parisiennes live here.

HVK: To what extent are the women in Parisiennes ‘free’?

In Parisiennes the women are like ‘the girl next door.’ When American people think of French women they think they exist in freedom: smoking, speaking loudly, a big temper. It’s a cliché but it is a little bit true.

French society is built by men, and French women pay the price to be independent. I wanted to show this price in Parisiennes. The homeless character is living on the street because of the choices she made in the past. Choices that men, not women, are allowed to make. Certainly, French women have their independence, but it’s complicated.

Eriko - parisiennes pic.jpg

Kyoko (Eriko Takeda)

HVK: The public toilet attendant character is interesting. Most people would see her job as a kind of prison, but it is her poetic imagination that gives her freedom. We see this in her surreal re-telling of when she witnesses blood seeping out from under one of the toilet doors.

Slony: To an extent all the characters are like this. The homeless person says it was her choice to live in the street. She says it to convince herself. But it was not like that. In France we say ‘Je me suis fait une legénd’ – ‘I make a legend out of my life.’ She says she drinks so she can see the small details in life. Her poetry gives her freedom, but in reality it is not like this. It only exists in her head.

The stylist is also a fantasist. She is a dominant woman with men. All her relationships with men are so crazy. She’s a surrealist, because she doesn’t like it when the story is simple. She likes drama, plus drama.

HVK: And in contrast to all the ‘drama’ we see Kyoko. Eriko, what version of yourself did you bring to the role?

Eriko: I wanted to represent the woman I was when I arrived in Paris. I had seen so many articles and films about Paris. The reality is totally different.
I arrived in Paris 9 years ago, not speaking one word of French. I couldn’t even say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was a total culture shock for me when I met the Parisian woman. I was sometimes frightened, sometimes emotional, sometimes surprised. Very shocked. In a good way and a bad way.

Slony: The people we know are mostly directors and actors. Most of them are crazy people. They fight and they love with big emotion.

HVK: Eriko, what is it like for you observing so much spontaneous emotion?

Eriko: In the beginning I went to many parties and I ended up staying alone until 4am at the corner of the table. I didn’t understand a thing. They talked hard with each other, fighting with each other.

I didn’t like it but I tried to like it because I had decided to live here and work as an actress. I learned that I had to explain my emotions and what I am actually feeling.

HVK: Parisiennes was shot before the 2015 Paris attacks. I imagine it would have been difficult to make now.

Slony: Yes, we shot with little time and without official authorisation. For the scene shot at the Palais Garnier (when Kyoto goes to see Madame Butterfly) we bought just one ticket. We just walked straight into the grand building. I had the camera on my shoulder, and followed Eriko.

I thought if I hid my camera, something wouldn’t work. If you’re confident, it can be easier. The security guard was very happy to let us through, and didn’t ask for a permit. We were lucky because on the same night there was some authorised filming going on at the Opera and they thought we were one of the crew. Only after ten minutes did the director approach me and figured out we didn’t have a permit. But we just carried on for another 30 minutes, and got all the shots we needed.

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HVK: Parisiennes took 2 weeks to write and 25 days to shoot on a budget of 30,000 euros. How did you manage to make it happen so quickly?

Slony: I knew that if I waited for the money to arrive from production companies, it would have taken too much time. The project would have died.

HVK: You wanted to work from the heartbeat?

I had friends who were willing to do things for free. The money came, bit by bit. I wanted and achieved a shooting experience that has elements of accidents and improvisations. Just like in life. We had to make do and adapt to the environment all the time.

HVK: Much of the cast comprise your friends, including a number of non-professional actors. How did this affect the shoot?

Slony: It wasn’t hard for me because it is an organic film. If it had been a big film, one which needed a lot of preparation, with big street installations, set locations, and with lots of takes I would have needed professional actors.

But for Parisiennes I needed real life and poetry. If my friends acted badly, it wasn’t necessarily a negative thing. This is because poetry can emerge from mistakes. If you cannot control everything you have to adapt. It is this that is exciting for me.

slony, Eriko, me paris 2015

Slony Sow, Eriko Takeda with Helen Van Kruyssen

If you ask a non-professional person to play like a professional you will crash against the wall. It won’t work. They have to be themselves. I asked them to follow me, and to trust me.


Helen Van Kruyssen, July 2016 

Winter Frog is currently being developed into a feature film and will be set in Napa Valley.

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Eperdument (Down By Love)


eperdument 2

Captivity comes in different forms … Guillaume Gallienne with Adele Exarchopoulos

Combustive desire shatters lives in writer-director Pierre Godeau’s portrait of a director who falls in love with an inmate in the women’s detention centre he manages.

If the narrative wasn’t based on real-life events it would be difficult to believe just why Jean (Guillaume Gallienne) puts his seemingly good marriage and job on the line for Anna (Adele Exarchopoulos), who is over half his age.

This isn’t just a brief affair: it’s a full-on dangerous obsession. Jean is shackled to his desire and takes bigger and bigger risks to spend time with Anna. He tells complicated lies, snatches moments for sex in her cell and prison IT room and engages in numerous amounts of texting. Meanwhile, Anna plods on with her constricted life in an emotionally volatile prison environment. Of course, she’s very needy and uses her sexuality to command and control Jean.

Gallienne plays Jean straight (a different turn to the comic role in his semi-autobiographical Me, Myself and Mum). Jean is serious yet slightly dead-pan which serves to lighten, a bit, the emotional intensity, saving Eperdument from melodrama. Exarchopoulos plays Anna with the same unbridled passion that we saw in Blue is the Warmest Colour.

An added casting delight is the Eric Rohmer actress Marie Rivière. Rivière is Anna’s mother, a gentle, vulnerable woman who is shackled by her response to her daughter’s imprisonment. At it’s own confined heart, Eperdument is a film about our own private captivities and the land that rests between admiration and obsession, the dangerous territory when we will do anything to meet our needs and not care about the result.

Director: Pierre Godeau (2016)



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lafitte and huppert - elle

Neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) helps Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) close the shutters on blowy night

At its dark, oddly humorous heart director Paul Verhoven’s thriller is a about a wealthy woman’s response to trauma. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), owner of a successful video-game company, lives alone in a house in a nice part of Paris, has respectable neighbours and a complicated relationship with her son. One night Michèle opens the French windows to let in her cat, and to her surprise, a man in a balaclava forces himself into her nicely appointed dining room. He then proceeds to brutally rape her.

Michèle organises her life in the same way that she controls the video games her company releases. With steel-nerves Michèle single-mindedly tracks down her assailant, armed with self-protection and unusual sexual desire. To say Michèle is a victim would only extend to the police report that she refuses to file. The rapist returns. The repeated violation scenes are violent, certainly disturbing to watch, but they are the only moments in the film when the super-controlled Michèle is dominated.

Is this a feminist film? Yes. And no. Seen from the point of view of a woman who is in total charge of her response, there is a resounding yes. Yet it is also worth considering whether a crime as horrific as rape should be exploited to make gripping entertainment. Unsurprisingly Elle (which didn’t win an award) was the most controversial film at Cannes this year.

Huppert’s glacial performance, the ‘still motion’ of her body and icy-comic flick of her eyes succeeds in turning our view of desire and manipulation upside down: we are shocked and we are fascinated. Michèle’s retort to the attack is to enjoy the anger and the thrill of the pursuit, and when she identifies her attacker her response is unconventional. This is explained by Verhoven’s backstory detailing Michèle’s childhood trauma.

Verhoven uses slick thriller devices reminiscent of Basic Instinct to make Elle compelling cinema, while Huppert’s resistance to acting cliché darkens Verhoven’s ink even more, keeping us in a state of genuine unease. And no more so than the one scene which indicates that on a sub-conscious level Michèle knew her attacker’s identity way before the film’s climax.

Director: Paul Verhoven (2016)

Interesting to note:

Elle is Paul Verhoven’s first French film. He was unable to make it in Hollywood due to its violent nature. The script is based on Philippe Dijian’s novel ‘Oh.’ Dijian also wrote the novel, ’37°2 Le Matin’ (Betty Blue

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Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) Every Man for Himself


An involved connection. Prostitute and film-maker: Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and Paul (Jacques Dutronc)

Godard’s charm is particular: his ability to hold us close to his characters, shake us for a reaction, and then pull us back to the position of voyeur. Sometimes we are with them, and sometimes we aren’t. Depression and solemn selfishness sit at the core of the central character Paul Godard (a comic wink to the director himself) and his interaction with the other characters is often unsettling intimate.

Sauve qui Peut (La Vie) is divided into four sections: The Prologue’, ‘The Imaginary,’ ‘Fear’ and ‘Commerce.’ The prologue presents Paul (Jacques Dutronc) as a film-maker who is hit on by a male hotel-worker in a Swiss car park. ‘The Imaginary’ places Denise (Nathalie Bye) as a free woman who has choices: will she leave her boyfriend Paul and the apartment they share? What will be her next creative project, a novel perhaps? She is a woman who is on the road. Godard wants us to understand that her spirit is free.

In ‘Fear’ the skies darken. Depression, self-hatred and its subsequent destruction ensue: Paul connects with the film-maker Marguerite Duras’ quote that she ‘only makes films because she can do nothing.’ He is obnoxious to his ex and their child, has a violent argument with Denise and then hires Isabelle. They have sex like robots, while Huppert’s mind thinks about the practicalities of the next day.

‘Commerce’ belongs to Huppert. Godard shows her life as a prostitute: the pimps, working in hotel rooms (looking understandably sullen) and negotiating her discontent flat-mates. Godard touches taboos through Isabelle’s clients’ requests: she is hired to play a man’s daughter in a fantasy-incest scenario. Alongside are other scenes showing domination and submission, violent relationships and an unforgettable, playful allusion to bestiality.

None of this shocks us: instead we are intrigued and quietly disarranged. Up close, we are sickened by Paul’s treatment of his daughter and ex-wife. Yet, at the same time, numbed.  Godard achieves this through visual jolts: stills and blurred movements. They detach us and take us to a place where we can sit disconnected and observe.

Isabelle Huppert’s performance is the other heart of the film, and beats well alongside Godard’s charm. Explained more fully in a recent mini-essay on Huppert here at 52frenchfilms, Isabelle has a ‘still motion’ in her facial expression and her body. It is a paradox: controlled and wild, robust and fragile, enigmatic and open. Her ‘still motion’ creates a space, a vacant room that positions us in her mind, making us stronger with her suffering, and resilient with her distance. We see things with her cool regard.

Godard has us where he wants us: we’re welcomed into the eyes of Isabelle and are apart from her too, watching and responding to her complicated world. Sauve qui Peut (La Vie) is as relevant today as it was in 1979, upholding the position of an involved connection and a chilly view, thanks largley to Huppert’s generosity and it is Godard’s genius.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard (1979)

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Isabelle Huppert: the allure of her vacant room


Negotiating pimps as Isabelle in Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)

Isabelle Huppert is in London and the sun is shining bright, a lion in the sky, shaking its mane over her enigmatic chill. It’s Huppert Season: films are playing in various cinemas across the city, some accompanied by introductions from herself. Last weekend she was in conversation with Stephen Frears at the Ciné Lumière, and at the Barbican Huppert is currently playing Phaedra(s) in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s esteemed production of the same name.

Critics laud Huppert’s intellect, which she expresses with incisive clarity (it’s worth checking out Jonathan Romney’s recent interview in the Guardian). Huppert is a supreme actress, and for years I have been turning her allure over in my mind, trying to understand why she has captivated us for over forty-five years and why we want to connect with her characters.

‘Intense’, ‘detached’, ‘controlled’, ‘fragile’: these are all adjectives writers use to describe Huppert’s performances. They are accurate descriptions, but in my mind her appeal is more complex. Last week I took myself down to see Huppert in a twilight screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) ‘Every Man for Himself.’ Huppert plays a young prostitute called Isabelle, a role for which Godard told her to simply ‘have the face of suffering.’

On the tube-ride home, in those peaceful hours between rush-hour squeeze and 11.30pm boozed-up passengers, it came to me that in Sauve qui peut (la vie) Huppert’s face is like a vacant room; and that in all her films this is the same, empty and open at the same time. We want to step inside, take up residence in Huppert’s mind and walk with her characters. Her invitation is polite, never pushy, but always difficult to resist.

First released in 1979, Sauve qui peut (la vie) is a linear (Godard calls it his ‘second feature film’, after a decade of experimental work) account of selfishness, economic transaction and relationships. It invites us to observe much that can arise from dark self-obsession, and many of these blacker moments are seen through the eyes of Isabelle. It is divided into four sections: ‘The Prologue’, ‘The Imaginary,’ ‘Fear’ and ‘Commerce.’

‘Commerce’ is Huppert’s section and we observe her life as a prostitute: working in hotel rooms (looking detached and sour-faced as men objectify her), negotiating greedy pimps and also her flat-mates who hate her. At one point Isabelle has sex like a robot with Paul, the lead character, all the while thinking about the practicalities of the next day. There’s also a curious job where Isabelle is hired by a man who wants her to play his daughter in a fantasy-incest scenario.

All the chilly taboos are here: incest, prostitution (domination and submission), physical violence in relationships and allusions to bestiality. Godard is persistent in stretching out the characters’ responses by slowing down some of the moments using an editing-technique called ‘decomposition’ (interesting to note that the initial UK release was called ‘Slow Motion’). These are visual jolts: stills and blurred movements. They detach us and create a space where we can respond with our own voice. We are distanced and at the same time, involved.

Alongside this is Huppert’s very own ‘still motion,’ which invites us into the strange, uncomfortable rooms of Sauve qui peut (la vie). It is displayed by her detached facial expression and the controlled yet casual way she holds her body. Huppert’s ‘still motion’ is the ‘vacancy,’ placing us at the back of her eyes, as she sits us down on the end of Godard’s bed and encourages us to make our own judgments about what we see. It is this perspective that is Huppert’s magic. She has a generosity in her ostensible coldness: she lets us in. We are with her, inside her characters, travelling the corridors of her directors’ vision.


In Claude Chabrol’s Madame Bovary

Godard’s vision in Sauve qui peut (la vie) is harsh in its treatment of commerce, domination and sex. Yet inside the perspective of Huppert’s mind we stay safe, free to engage with her ‘face of suffering.’ But we are still aloof: able to observe and self-protect. This is exactly where Godard wants us to be, and it is what still makes Sauve qui peut (La Vie) such an effective and relevant film close to forty years since its first release.

Huppert’s cine-magic doesn’t rest here, she also gives us her very own separation.

We see Huppert’s ‘separation’ in all her performances. It’s in the moments when she lifts her eyes and looks to a place that is both beyond her characters and the mountains on the horizon of the director’s vision.

It is Huppert’s space, and it is elsewhere. It is cinema, and it is indescribable. Just as it should be.


(London, 7th June 2016)

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