HUPPERT, ISABELLE – ME AND MY SISTER
CONFLICT TO AVOID
Alexandra Leclere’s debut feature about conflicted sisters , Me and My Sister, unites two of France’s great actresses: Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Frot; Huppert explains how Frot likes to rehearse, and she doesn’t, so they both had to adjust – to avoid real life conflict.
How did you join this project?
In an ordinary, and at the same time, very unordinary way. I met (director) Alexandra Leclere in front of my son’s elementary school. A mutual friend had told me that she wanted to give me a script. I didn’t know her at all, and at first I was a little surprised. Dominique Besnehard, her agent, believed in the story and insisted that I read it.
What did you think of the script?
Alexandra had told me that the role of Martine had been written for me, which was why she had been so insistent. After my first reading, I sensed right away that this character existed and that it was good. Even if numerous points needed refining – it was after all a first screenplay and a first film – the tone of the film was already there.
The story is at first rather light-hearted, putting the film in the comedy category, then as it unfolds it becomes increasingly profound and serious. This evolution of the characters and the situations was fascinating to me. The film treats some sensitive subjects, such as the family, sibling relations and the couple. By using a mixture of bitter, funny and
violent tones, it keeps you constantly on the edge, balancing on the edge of a precipice. And the crisis does of course end up happening.
The script also deals with life choices, raising the differences between small town and big city life. Paris evokes a certain idea of success, of good taste and of the gulf that can exist between appearances and inner life. Martine shows all the outward signs of success: she is wealthy, well-dressed and she has a beautiful apartment, but something inside of her has never been fulfilled. She realizes this very quickly when she is with her sister. Martine understands that Louise, though less self-assured in appearance, is in the process of accomplishing something with her life.
They are each a mirror for the other, but the reflections blur very rapidly. Louise has a way of being nice that quickly becomes invasive and suffocating. On the other hand, Martine’s agressiveness hides her fragility, something that is broken inside of her. And little by little, the roles are reversed.
Did you integrate the character’s evolution before starting to act, or did it come out during the filming?
It was already present in the screenplay, but it was fully revealed while we were acting. I knew from the start how I would “find” Martine, but her character was really nourished by the shooting, the acting and by my encounter with Catherine. Each day I got
more pleasure out of acting, finding new and different possibilities to explore, thanks both to the role and to what my imagination allowed me to do with it.
How would you define Martine?
We realize very rapidly that beneath the surface, she is completely lost. She is an upper middle-class woman who is dependant on her husband, and who would like to work to become autonomous. Her situation allowed me to unveil her scene by scene. We see many different aspects of her personality, so haughty at the outset, then so unsure of herself when Louise tells of her romantic adventure. And she finally collapses under the weight of despair, envy and jealousy. She has no reason to be jealous at the beginning, but Louise has such an irritating happiness that it makes Martine’s revolt plausible. She hadn’t anticipated this jealousy, and it jumps in her face! She wasn’t supposed to be the “jealous one” – she is rich,
bourgoise, and her sister a small town beautician! She at first resists even inviting Louise because she is ashamed of her.
I like it when Martine asks for work from her friend (played by Brigitte Catillon) because it makes her completely vulnerable. She reveals numerous facets of her personality, from her harshness with her sister to her fragility when she senses that life is passing her by.
What was it like working with Catherine Frot?
Catherine likes to rehearse and I don’t, so we both had to adjust. We don’t have the same work methods at all. That was part of the differences that we had to surmount, and that served the story well I think. But in some of the scenes, we had to respect a precise mechanism at first, so that we could free ourselves afterwards.
Did your character have a psychological hold on you? Did you need to immerse yourself in her universe?
She didn’t have a hold on me, but what I act out is hidden inside myself. This “other” becomes a kind of tenant, which doesn’t prevent me from leading my own life. “She” and I put up with each other.
Some of the scenes required a lot of emotional involvement. What did you draw upon?
As always, a character is simultaneously exterior to an actor and completely interior. You can of course make a film like you would make a necklace, without being involved in the process at all. But if you have a profound relationship with what you’re doing, it’s always an existential adventure. There is always an area where your own past, in differing
degrees, intersects with the story that you’re telling. That’s why there is so much pleasure in doing it.
How did Alexandra direct you?
I chose to make this film, and from the start I accepted the fact that it was Alexandra’s first film, with the advantages and disadvantages that this would imply.
The disadvantages were quickly surmounted. Because of Alexandra’s capability right from the start to tell this story, which was very close to her heart, this film doesn’t resemble a first feature at all. She didn’t hesitate in her directorial choices, and she and Michel Amathieu, the cameraman, cooperated fully. We were immediately reassured. Alexandra didn’t waver – she knew where she was going. At first, she was so sure of her direction that she sometimes got hung up on a preconceived idea. She later realized that working with actors is also a matter of being surprised by them. After that, the trust was complete and it was very enjoyable.
Alexandra had worked extensively on the film’s shot arrangement and she never hesitated regarding the camera’s placement. Her writing was clear and precise and, surprisingly, there was not an unnecessary shot. I observed her, never forgetting that she was directing her first film. I was both intrigued and touched by her progress. Her capability placed her beyond a beginner’s level, yet she was one. That raised several questions for me: what is cinema, is it know-how and experience? Why is it that someone who has no training or experience can all of a sudden succeed in making a good film?
Alexandra’s success wasn’t due to the fact, however, that she was treating a subject very close to her. She is truly talented. She perhaps has the energy and the stubbornness of people who don’t “know” yet, and who therefore aren’t afraid. In such an undertaking, the equation doesn’t work either without an alliance between producer and director. As soon as Philippe Godeau became interested in the project, his presence was a determining factor. He really carried the film along.
You mentioned previously the acting pleasure that you derived from your role. In which scene were you most aware of this?
Me and My Sister takes a hard look at the relationships of women among themselves, and also with men. That creates many intense moments. The love scene, or rather the “out-of-love” scene, between Martine and Pierre is very difficult, yet very moving. It’s a beautiful scene that’s both brutal and impenetrable.
Another scene that I like very much is when Martine and Louise are side by side at the Opera. Each establishes her own relationship with the music. One woman feels complete empathy while the other closes in on herself. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film. We see it as a fixed shot, but in fact the camera moves from one woman to the other. Each is reflecting the most intimate part of herself, in a double movement, with one going towards the music and the other moving away from it. But for each of them the music is a revealing factor. It’s magnificent.
In the scene where you are together in the living room at night, watching The Young Girls of Rochefort, we can sense a real complicity between you and Catherine…
That’s true, and it’s probably the only moment in the film where the two sisters are really close. It’s a fleeting moment. The power of a shared memory creates a real bond between them.
How was it working with François Berléand?
We’ve known each other for a long time, and we had already worked together on The School of Flesh. It was a great pleasure to be together again. His character, Pierre, is not a macho husband, but he doesn’t look at Martine as she would like to be looked at. It isn’t his fault. It could be blamed on the situations, but not on the characters. One can point out of course that they put themselves into these situations, but Alexandra retained the distance necessary so that the characters would be perceived “objectively”. People often start by living together, having a child, and then find themselves prisoners of a life “plan” that structures and conditions their behaviour. Sophie, the upstairs neighbour, is also prisoner of something quite unhappy, what with her voyeur husband. The film doesn’t have a very joyous view of sexuality, to say the least.
While watching Martine and Louise, we ask ourselves a lot of questions about life. Do you think that one must be naive in order to be happy?
That sounds like a high school philosophy question! But I adore these questions that plunge you into the abyss! So yes, maybe a little. When you are naive, perhaps you are unhappy less often and less deeply, but you also miss out on great happiness. It must be a little lukewarm. If you think more and are aware of things, there is maybe more real joy and more real pain as well. There are more contrasts.
Published July 28, 2005
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