Isabelle Huppert’s states of mind

Koch Lorber is releasing Claude Chabrol’s superb 1991 adaptation of “Madame Bovary” on DVD Nov. 18, which is great news for fans of the French director who is without question the most prolific — and most versatile — of the filmmakers who made up the French New Wave of the early 1960s.
In just the past few years alone, Chanbrol has given us a sharp political satire, “The Comedy of Power,” and the extremely unsettling Ruth Rendell-derived suspense film, “The Bridesmaid.”
The “Madame Bovary” DVD comes with a fantastic documentary — “Playing Life” — a 2001 profile of Isabelle Huppert, the great actress Chabrol has worked with numerous times.
These days, the “extras” on DVDs are often the only way to see film-related documentaries. The recent deluxe version of “How the West Was Won,” for instance, contains a marvelous feature-length documentary on the long-vanished wide-screen process Cinerama. Last month’s Koch Lorber edition of “Ludwig” includes two excellent Italian TV documentaries never before seen in this country — one on director Luchino Visconit and another profiling his frequent star Silvana Mangano.
If you are a fan of Huppert’s — and what serious movie buff isn’t? — the “Madame Bovary” DVD is worth purchasing for “Playing Life” alone.
The 55-year-old actress gave director Serge Toubiana a remarkable degree of access to her working life in 2000, one of the most productive periods of Huppert’s career, when she was doing “Medea” on the stage and working on what is possibly the greatest and most challenging role of her career, the title part in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.”
Huppert also squeezed in a memorable Chabrol film during the time covered by Toubiana, “Merci pour le chocolat,” in which the star played an upper class poisoner.
During the course of the documentary, Huppert tells Toubiana that she has always felt like “a formless child given form by roles.”
“Sometimes I feel I am proof that nothing exists,” the actress says of the strange double-life she has lived since she started working in film in 1971.
Huppert believes anyone who acts for a living must juggle “fear” and “pride.”
“I don’t believe one ever plays characters, one plays states of mind,” Huppert once told an interviewer. “A character is completely meaningless to me. One goes through states of mind and tries to link them together.”
The actress is far from humorless in the documentary. During one sequence devoted to her intense work with Haneke on “The Piano Teacher” Huppert talks about her reaction upon learning the director’s goal for the film: “I want the audience to be too embarrassed to watch.”
“(But) it was me on the screen!,” Huppert says of a performance that, fortunately, was seen and admired all over the world (and earned the star her second best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival).
I don’t think there is a better actress working in movies today, so what a gift it is to have “Playing Life” illuminate Huppert’s attitudes and complex working process.