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Isabelle Huppert, Rendez-Vous With French Cinema
Isabelle Huppert at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Julie Cunnah Photo

Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert was the big star attraction at opening night of the 21st edition of Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, presented by Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance.

Her film, “Valley of Love,” co-starring Gérard Depardieu and directed by Guillaume Nicloux, had its North American premiere at the popular film series, which traditionally opens with a star-driven selection. (Catherine Deneuve attended opening night last year.)

In “Valley of Love,” Huppert and Depardieu play a long-divorced couple who meet up after many years in Death Valley, California, as requested by their deceased gay son, Michael, who sent them letters right before he committed suicide. In the letters, Michael sent his parents detailed instructions they are to follow during a week’s stay in Death Valley, where he promises to make a ghostly visitation in a farewell encounter.

The bizarre and somewhat ghoulish film has David Lynchian, “Waiting for Godot” and supernatural hocus-pocus elements. Somehow it all works because of the power of the two big stars.

“Valley of Love,” is also a road film, and the duo spend a considerable amount of time in a car with time to mull over mistakes, memories and existential concerns, not to mention their failures as Michael’s parents. To add a meta-touch to the proceedings, the characters they play are named Gérard and Isabelle. The film earned director Guillaume Nicloux a nomination for Palme D’Or, and Christophe Offenstein received a Cesar for cinematography for his images of Death Valley and its tacky motels.

Isabelle Huppert, Rendez-Vous With French Cinema
Isabelle Huppert at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Julie Cunnah Photo

Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu – Together Again After 35 Years

The last time Depardieu and Huppert appeared on screen together was 35 years ago in Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou,” in which Huppert played a beautiful woman who left her bourgeoisie friends for a torrid affair with the crass and studly character played by Depardieu. Depardieu has packed on some pounds since then. And recently his notorious real-life exploits have overshadowed his acting renown and talent, which thankfully is on display in “Valley of Love.”

For audiences who haven’t seen him on screen recently, Depardieu’s appearance is shocking. “I got fat,” says Depardieu’s character shamefacedly in the opening scene of “Valley of Death,” after Isabelle tells him he looks well. “As long as you are happy,” she replies. “How could I be happy like this?” he counters.

Isabelle Huppert on Gerard Depardieu Shirtless

Depardieu walks around nearly half of the 92-minute running time of the film shirtless and sweating. Meanwhile, Huppert is as svelte and pencil-thin as ever. The contrast in size between the two is startling, and I feared for Huppert’s safety during emotional scenes in which Depardieu is called to swoop in and embrace her.

On the red carpet, I asked Huppert why Depardieu was topless so much of the film. Was it his decision or the director’s?

“Well, it was hot,” said Huppert, who looked soigné in a black pantsuit. In the film, there is mention that in Death Valley the temperature soared to 140 degrees. But the actress kept her shirt on. “I swim in the pool and he doesn’t, so at some point he has to get (relief)… You know, I swim and he takes his shirt off.”

Actually, there is one scene in the film where he paddles around in a pool. (In the funniest scene in the movie, near the motel pool an obnoxious American hounds Depardieu, who he only vaguely recognizes, for his autograph. Gérard signs it “Robert De Niro.”)

As for how it felt to be reunited on screen with Depardieu after 35 years, Huppert told me they have seen each other since making “Loulou,” and that playing a couple “felt normal, very natural.” They reteam again soon for “Mrs. Hyde,” an adaptation of the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” classic. “But I’m not the doctor,” is all she would tell me of the film.

As for his performance in “Valley of Love,” I asked Huppert how she hoped Depardieu would be viewed in the film since lately his often strange and notorious behavior has overshadowed his acting renown. “I think they will see him in a very good film, that’s all, as a very fine actor.”

I asked Huppert her impressions of Death Valley and what shooting there was like. “I had been there before, so it was not a surprise to me. But of course, we stayed there three weeks, so that’s very different from when you stay only just a few days. But it was quite an extraordinary experience, and I think the movie is the result of that experience. It’s almost a spiritual experience. We spent so much time in this place. It’s very unusual.”

As a two-hander that relies on the acting and presence of the two big-ticket French stars, the movie could be a play. “Almost,” said Huppert. “Like the landscape is like a big stage. Yes, it’s very true. Also, it’s very big. There is immensity to it, but in a way it’s also very limited because it’s always the same. It’s like infinity was limited in a way, and it’s exactly like a stage.”

I asked Huppert about her eagerly awaited movie with Michael Haneke, which is the “Amour” director’s next film. “I can only tell you the title, ‘Happy Ending,’ which is a funny title coming from Michael Haneke.” This means the subject must be the opposite since it comes from the notably dour and sardonic filmmaker. “You can expect that,” she said.

Melville Poupard, Rendez-Vous With French Cinema
Melville Poupard at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Paula Schwartz Photo

Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2016 – Films From a Female Point of View

This year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema film series is the strongest lineup since it’s inception, with insightful and fascinating films dealing with diverse subjections, including feminism, economic inequality and the plight of immigrants. Many of the stories in fine films like “Fatima” and “Summertime” are told from a female point of view. The series features work by eight female directors. Hollywood could learn a lesson.

When I asked Huppert why she thought that Hollywood films lacked this kind of diversity, she replied, “I don’t know. I’m not a sociologist. We do have a lot of female filmmakers in France, and usually most of the female filmmakers, they would have some kind of certain topics and certain interests different from what men would have. It looks like we are not scared of that in France and maybe people are (here),” she said. “You have a different idea of how films should be. Maybe we are less obsessed with this.”

I asked the actress if she had any desire to direct a film. “Not really, not for the moment,” she told me. “But maybe I will, just like this, in one second I may decide.”

As for what it meant to her to attend the festival, she said, “I’m very happy to be here. I think it’s a very, very nice festival and an opportunity for the audience from New York to discover a large amount of French films. I think it’s very good for us. It’s very good for the French films and it’s really good for the American audience, as well. So all together, it’s really a nice combination.”

Elisabeth Huppert, Rendez-Vous With French Cinema
Isabelle Huppert and Guillaume Nicloux at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Julie Cunnah Photo

Huppert praised director Guillaume Nicloux, with whom she made “The Nun” and described his process. “I like the way he works. We don’t talk very much. He likes just to observe the actors, and he sets them in a particular and very strong context and lets them act and let’s them just be actually, and then with his camera he captures this, which is nice.”

Also on the red carpet opening night were directors Eva Husson (“Bang Gang”), Alice Winocour (“Disorder”) and Nicolas Pariser (“The Great Game”), along with actor Melvil Poupaud (“The Great Game”).

Elisabeth Huppert, Angelique Kidjo
Isabelle Huppert and Angelique Kidjo at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Julie Cunnah Photo

Making a notable presence was Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, who told me she is a long-time friend and fan of Huppert.

“She’s one of those women in the movie business in France that I have a huge respect for because she’s a great actress and everything she does she magnifies it.”

The swanky after party took place at the French Embassy’s Payne Mansion on Fifth Avenue at 79th Street and featured French electronic music by Busy P, Boston Bun, Superpoze and Jacques. I last spotted Isabelle Huppert at midnight at the loud and crowded party where she mingled and mixed with guests.

Rendez-Vous With French Cinema series runs through March 13.

Eva Husson, Bang Gang
Eva Husson at 2016 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema | Paula Schwartz Photo
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