Actress Isabelle Huppert attends the 'Claire's Camera (Keul-Le-Eo-Ui-Ka-Me-La)' photocall during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival
Actress Isabelle Huppert attends the 'Claire's Camera (Keul-Le-Eo-Ui-Ka-Me-La)' photocall during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival
Image: Getty

"This dessert looks so good. It's Tantalus's torture, walking past with it, just under our noses. And they're doing it again."

We are finishing the 10th course of a meal that has already been going for two-and-a-half hours but Isabelle Huppert is showing no signs of feeling full. What has caught her eye now is a scoop of beige-coloured ice cream in a greyish soup that waiters are bringing to other tables.

"Monsieur, we're going to have that too, right?" she inquires of our waiter. We are not supposed to. Red berries mille-feuilles are our scheduled next dish. But the garçon says he will see what he can do. Huppert approves, mischievous, her dark red lipstick long gone. Not for the first time, I find myself laughing, probably the result of two glasses of champagne and a bottle of red wine - but also of relief.

L'Arpège is one of Paris's finest dining institutions. It is run by "vegetables king" Alain Passard, who is also legendary for his interminable meals. So I was a little nervous beforehand. What if Huppert and I failed to hit it off but had to soldier on through an epic lunch? With more than 100 films to her name over nearly five decades, including this year's Golden Globe award and Oscar nomination for her performance in the disturbing rape-drama Elle, the actress is known for her courtesy towards journalists but she is also guarded and can be blunt. What if the "Meryl Streep of France", as she is dubbed in the US media, played Hollywood grande dame?

Shortly before 1.30pm, under a heavy shower, I set foot in the Michelin-starred restaurant, just across the street from the Rodin Museum. I am shown to a round table in the middle of the room - not the discreet spot I had requested. Busy and echoing to clinking glasses, with its lacquered wood panels and curved walls, L'Arpège feels like the interior of a cruise ship. Huppert, of course, is quite at home on centre stage. When she shows up 15 minutes later - elegantly assertive in a black blazer over a white-striped silk shirt, skinny black jeans and black stiletto ankle boots underlining her petite figure - the volume in the room dims. "Such a religious silence," she says, putting her sunglasses on the table and her red-haired fringe in order. When she asks for a glass of festive rosé champagne, which arrives instantly with six colourful vegetarian amuse-bouches on silver teaspoons, my worries evaporate.

Huppert says she is not an Arpège regular. So I give her a chance to escape the longest option on the menu, a succession of improvised courses based on the morning's harvest from Passard's properties outside Paris. But Huppert is tempted - and she has cleared her schedule. The "Gardeners' Lunch" it is.

The first dish is a promising broad-and-green-bean hummus, light and slightly acid, with a beetroot purée spiced with crushed hazelnuts, purple basil and sesame oil. The sommelier serves us a rich Saint-Joseph red from the northern Rhône valley, but first Huppert wants a champagne refill. As we eat she tells me a friend invited her here a few years ago. She is, she says, "very much a vegetables person".

Passard's radical culinary shift since 2001 has involved growing his own organic vegetables and, for a period, banning meat. He accomplished this while keeping his three stars. We are still raving about the hummus when we are brought a classic: the soft-boiled egg "chaud-froid" with Xeres vinegar and maple syrup - the contrast is stimulating, the texture soft and melting.

By now we are talking about Emmanuel Macron, France's new president. Huppert is puzzled by how quickly the press has turned on him after he defeated Marine Le Pen in May's presidential elections. Since then the 39-year-old has won a majority in parliamentary elections and introduced a grand presidential style that he has described as "Jupiterian" and which the leftwing press has denounced as revealing autocratic leanings.

"He was elected with a certain enthusiasm and immediately we grow suspicious," she says. "It's strange. We don't even give him the time . . . Since Macron's identity is to have blurred the right and left, criticism comes from the right and left. Now doomsayers will tell you that by blowing up the right and left, everything is in place for the far-right to reach power next time . . . Personally, I want to believe in him, and for a while."

After such a good start, the mozzarella and strawberries salad feels bland, but we take comfort in the mighty whole salmon - over one metre long, from Scotland, cooked in a crust of salt - to which we are briefly introduced. It has been a momentous year for Huppert on a personal level too. But she is typically insouciant about her Oscar nomination for Best Actress. "If I had gone through all this in a little country . . . but it's America, it's irrational, it's blown out of proportion. It tells a lot about how people relate to America. When you're there, you're just in a town called Los Angeles." She seems more overwhelmed by her recent trip to China, where she gave live readings of Marguerite Duras's The Lover - a partly autobiographical novel about the author's affair, when she was 15, with an older Chinese man in colonial Vietnam - to huge crowds. "They knew it so well. The reactions afterwards were insane, so enthusiastic. It was moving."

Next up is an unexpected mustard sorbet in a cold cucumber soup that brings back memories of the late New Wave director Claude Chabrol, who directed Huppert in seven films. The bespectacled bon vivant used to pick locations according to his love of haute cuisine. Around New Year's Eve 1996 in Savoie, he insisted on driving 40km through a blizzard to get to chef Marc Veyrat's restaurant near Annecy in the Alps. "We thought we would never make it," Huppert recalls. When they arrived, the heating was broken and the place was empty, barring a party of Japanese tourists.

Chabrol once said that he saw "eye to eye" with Huppert and that she would "never cease to surprise me and perform better than anything I have dreamt of." Huppert has described her bond with him as "filial". She excelled in his Balzac-like depictions of perversion amid the provincial bourgeoisie. In 1978, he chose her to play the title role in Violette Nozière, the true story of a 1930s teenager who poisoned her father and was sentenced to the guillotine. Huppert won the Cannes Festival's Best Actress award for the role. Her success in Nozière heralded a series of ambiguous female characters and a second Best Actress award in Cannes for Michael Haneke's 2001 The Piano Teacher. More recently, she has featured in comedies. But her performance in Paul Verhoeven's Elle, as a rape victim who engages in a sexual game with her attacker, is further testimony to her mastery of darker characters.

Before she goes into this there is a more pressing issue: she wants to change the wine. Taken aback, the sommelier brings a lighter bourgogne, but I find it too acid. As he heads back to his cellar, grumbling - he will bring a decent red from Côte Roannaises - a tall figure marches towards us: it is Passard. "Imagine, people want to eat tomatoes in winter, when all they need is a good parsnip soup!" he exclaims. Huppert promises she will no longer eat tomatoes in winter, but it is summer and we happily tuck into our thin tomato tart, topped with purple basil and anchovies. As she does so, she speculates about a man eating alone and scrutinises a party of eight, probably an American family. But observation is not the inspiration for her minimalist acting, she insists. "It's all inside, vertical, not at all panoramic. I can be an actress without getting out of my bedroom. I like watching people, it amuses me, but it has nothing to do with my work. Now, observing people in the street, to see that most have pretty empty gazes, it gives me one clue, essentially that I need to do less. Fiction tends to inflate everything. Observation pushes you to subtract, rather than to add."

This surely applies to her character in Elle. At first, Michèle seems to brush aside her rape and move on to deal with other crises - her unemployed son who is about to become a father, her irritable daughter-in-law, her mother who wants to remarry with a younger man, her video-game company and her sick father, in prison for going on a killing rampage when she was 10. After the rape, she picks up the broken glass on her kitchen floor, takes a bath, orders sushi. She stays alone in her big house, even after realising that her rapist is the neighbour about whom she fantasises. "The many subplots are intended to show she puts the rape at the same level as her many other issues," says Huppert. "She wants it to be almost like a non-event, which makes it highly troubling. At the beginning of the film, you could think the rape is minimised. But the end is perfectly clear."

She says the film raises more questions than it provides answers. Its success, especially in the US, surprised her. She found out later that Verhoeven had envisaged a Hollywood twist and a US actress for the role but that none of those approached accepted it. "There's a form of provocation," she says of the director. "It's a way to send a message to Hollywood, even if he offends a lot of people in passing. But all ended really well. And he said he could never have directed another actress, so he has admitted his weakness."

She does not seek in her performances to provoke viewers with "monsters", she insists. "My interpretation of these roles is precisely to bring them back to a certain normality. They are so close that everybody can see themselves in them." Her next film, directed by Neil Jordan and scheduled for later this year, is "more difficult. My character is evil. People will see what a real pervert is. But I am still going to try to give some clues to understand her . . . It's a way to say that the frontier between evil and normality is thin. Is there such thing as pure evil? That's the question nowadays, when a guy gets into a Jewish school in Toulouse and kills two children aged five and eight." She is referring to an attack that took place in 2012, the first of a series of deadly Islamist terrorist assaults in France. "Verhoeven's film asks the question of good and evil. How to answer it? We can't."

She breaks off. "Wait, what happened to our salmon?" Instead, we are presented with a whole roasted lamb, still fuming. "It looks friendly - I could almost pat it," she muses. "Shall we ask the waiter about the salmon? We need to get to the bottom of this. A salmon was presented to us. It looked really nice, we said hello to it." It is on its way, we are assured, and here it is, half-cooked and in green pea mousse and broccoli. Huppert picks up one of the weirdly shaped green tomatoes that decorate our table and gestures over her plate. I realise she thinks it is salt. "It's a tomato," I say, giggling. "Really?" She keeps trying to shake it for a few more seconds.

Huppert's appetite - or rather her determination to experiment - is astonishing. Her hunger for acting seems insatiable too. She has never slowed down, starring in two or three films a year, as well as the occasional play. "I know this is what people say, but other actresses like Julianne Moore are as busy." Huppert, who is married to film-maker Ronald Chammah and has three children, has worked with some of the greatest French directors but has no nostalgia. "The cinema I like is the one I am living now . . . It's more a question of people than a question of genre or script." As an intriguing hay-whipped cream appears before us, she has a few messages to send across the Atlantic: she would like to work with Stephen Frears, David Cronenberg and Woody Allen. I freeze. How come she never worked with the Francophile Allen? Huppert would be such an obvious choice. "Here you go. I find this astonishing too," she says. "There's not much time left. He's not that young any more. I know him well. You need a certain context. I heard he's going to make a film in France soon . . . " She pauses: "Besides, he does so many of them. Frankly, what would it cost him to do one with me, vite fait, bien fait? It's really not a big deal. He doesn't know what he is missing. I do. He will when it's too late."

I am giggling again, but more seriously, I ask her whether she has absolute confidence in herself. "Yes," she replies. "I have absolute confidence in my acting abilities, since the beginning. It may sound arrogant. I never doubt. I have absolutely no fear. I have unlimited self-confidence. There are so many other areas where I am not that, I am not ashamed to say it." What makes her doubt? "Crossing the street, meeting people . . . Everything that's vital. But acting, nothing can intimidate me. Acting is never an obstacle. I do it without thinking. It's like eating or drinking. It's a non-event . . . Of course it's an enormous pleasure, but there's no stress."

Some of her most memorable scenes show her translucent green eyes filling with tears. I cannot help but ask how she makes herself cry. "Very easily. It's so easy. It's also an enormous amount of concentration. It means I won't say hi to people in the morning. It implies a sort of hyperconcentration. It's demanding. I need silence. But it's not a state I need to be in from 8am, I can easily get into it. I just need to be in my thing."

Our final savoury dishes come in the shape of three vegetable raviolis in a warm verveine consommé and roasted lamb over courgette flowers. After our mille-feuilles, the lunch reaches its resolution with the greyish ice cream that caught her eyes: the house's Ile flottante "moka-verbena", a coffee ice cream in a sage and mint sauce - a fabulous, masculine bliss. "I knew it was divine. Too good. It's delicious," Huppert says. "It's not sweet at all! We've lost three kilos."

It is past 5pm, a ray of sunlight filters through the frosted glass windows. But Huppert is ready for more. When our espressos arrive, she looks disappointed: "Ah, they're not bringing any sweets with it."

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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