The thriller Eva, directed by Benoit Jacquot, deals with a game – a very dangerous one, though outwardly playing out in a prosperous social environment: bourgeois France, high-society receptions and theatrical auditoriums, living rooms and mountain chalets of the rich. The film’s antagonist is one Bertrand (Gaspard Ulliel), who steals a play after its author’s sudden demise, and becomes a successful playwright by posing as its creator. The publisher and the public demand that he write another play, so Bertrand finds the prostitute Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and begins to feign a relationship with her, trying to get her to fall in love with himself, and uses all the dialogs and situations as a material for work, thus acting as the copyist of the reality which he is directing. He plays with it and ultimately goes too far, with fatal consequences.
The film is based on a novel by the British crime writer James Hadley Chase. Joseph Losey’s earlier film adaptation was released in 1962, with Jeanne Moreau playing the leading role.
Jacquot’s version is a strong and hard psychological thriller; the final scenes reappear in memory after viewing. Its greatest achievement is the incredible, brilliant Huppert. She leads the protagonist throughout the range of states that this tense plot demands: from indifference to rage, from humble passivity to dangerous aggression, from submission to domination. She is not afraid to appear in the frame without makeup, with wrinkles and other signs of her age, and remains charming despite it. Without a doubt, the image of Eva has already become part of her acting immortality.
The world premiere of the film took place at the Berlin Film Festival. After the screening, Huppert and Jacquot met with the press.
What fascinated you about Chase’s novel?
Benoit Jacquot: “This is a book that I read in my teenage years, and at that time I happened to be getting into the idea of becoming a filmmaker as my sole trade and passion. So, that decision of mine, to become a filmmaker, was linked to the prospect of making a film from that book, which truly left a deep impression on me. I had forgotten it from time to time, and then it came back into my mind’s eye again at other times, and then finally, the chance really did come up. I hope it’s not going to be the last film I ever make, because this is the first film I ever wanted to make. I have finally drawn a line onto that.”
In your opinion, is Eva a femme fatale, or is there a true love between your heroes, after all?
Isabelle Huppert: “Yes, she seems to be fatal to Bertrand, but I am not sure that she does it on purpose. She certainly is not the archetypical image of femme fatale like one would expect. I could say that after reading the script as well as after reading the book, and the way James Hadley Chase described her was very, very contemporary, very modern, she is much more complex. Well, it’s not like the femme fatale is not complex, but at least this one is a lot. As for love, that’s a very good question, actually. Yes, a certain kind of love, let’s say.”
Jacquot: “What I strived to do together with Isabelle Huppert in creating this character, was a character that doesn’t fit that definition of femme fatale. This genre has been overdone, I wanted to do something totally different. This fate that she brings about, she’d not be mysterious but more anonymous and mundane, and that is something that was achieved with all the talents of the lady sitting to my left.”
Isabelle, how did you prepare for the role? Did you watch other movies about sex workers?
Huppert: “No, not really, I wasn’t really inspired by other movies. We, with Benoit, tried to establish this visual aspect of her as a prostitute, and how she could have several faces in the film. Acting is about a lot of thinking, most of the time. We just think about it. I did not base myself upon any other research or any other existing character. I thought she was a very unusual and atypical kind of a character in the sense, she is mysterious to Bertrand, but as the movie goes on, you understand – she is very practical woman in a sense. So, this makes her very ambiguous, I think.”
Benoit, did you have Ms. Huppert in mind when writing the script, or has she appropriated this character?
Jacquot: “Ms. Huppert does not appropriate characters to the extent that I know her. She is not predatory, she doesn’t own characters for herself. She puts her own perspective on, she would see herself more as the character just at the time that she plays them. She plays them more as a lucky renter of a film, some who has had the privilege of leasing a universe from somebody, and so it’s hers briefly.”
Huppert: “Also, you could say Eva is a figment of Bertrand’s imagination in the film, which gives her a different type of mystery, a lot of more of potential depth. She is seen through his gaze, most of the time, anyway.”
Jacquot: “And the film plays on this ongoing ambiguity.”
Isabelle, what is your attitude to the ongoing debate in Hollywood and Europe about the role of women in the film industry, and to the fact that some directors and actors are being banned from the industry?
Huppert: “It was so long ago that this stuff should have been said. It has been one of the reasons why I’ve been doing cinema – to speak of women in a certain way. I’m very happy that some things have finally been brought out into the open. Definitively, I hope.”
The film is very erotic, you are very erotic without being lewd, but if the director of the script wanted to film you naked, would you have done it?
Huppert: “You have a bizarre idea of eroticism there, because you seem to be suggesting that you have to be naked to be erotic.”
No, that is not what I mean.
Jacquot: “It’s the sixth film, sixth time that I have worked with Isabelle Huppert, and I have often filmed her completely naked and in a variety of conditions.”
Huppert: “He has filmed my soul stripped bare, not my body!”
Jacquot: “But there, in this film, it would have seemed counterproductive, if not just useless, it would have gone against eroticism that you are, I think, speaking of.”
Isabelle, can you say how it was seeing the camera 20 centimeters from your face?
Huppert: “Well, that’s what cinema is about. It’s getting as close as possible to someone’s face, it has been nothing strange for me since the beginning of my career in cinema, in fact. I have been used to having a camera at close quarters, and trying to show something which is usually not seen, bring about something which is invisible. And you get the sense sometimes that you are filming both the surface and the inside, and that’s almost the definition of what cinema does.”
Photo from the website imdb.com
Mr. Jacquot, when I watched your movie, I remembered Bunuel’s Belle de Jour which tells a similar story.
Jacquot: “Well, I’m honored to be compared to Belle de Jour, and I’m still a big fan of that film, but I really wasn’t thinking of it at the time I made this film. You could think of all the films, classic films of the 20th century, you try to keep them out of your mind when you produce a film, otherwise, there will be no end of it.”
How did you succeed in creating suspense without the conventional and cliched toolbox of cinema tactics?
Huppert: “It’s about a psychological level rather than some tactics. They [heroes] are trying to resolve a certain enigma about themselves. That’s part of what the film does, as well for me. And that sense of threat in the film is borne out by one or two things that do happen, you almost expect them to happen, which just confirm this climate of possible anguish because of the brooding threat throughout the film.”
The antagonist is threatened from the very outset, his lie seems too obvious, but he is avoiding his day of reckoning with an incredible ease.
Jacquot: “There are different threats, I had invented each of these threats. It would be too simple if everyone knew what was going to happen from the beginning. You may have wished for nothing, you may have wanted that the film goes exactly to your expectations, but I tried to do the opposite. This is not a story about a writer who writes and fails. He [Bertrand] is an impostor, somebody who is taking on somebody else’s identity and paints himself into a corner. The film tries to show how this trap – rather than him escaping from it – closes around him more and more towards the end.”
Huppert: “First of all, Bertrand takes Eva as a potential material, writer’s material, and then her personality overtakes her character that he has in his head, and actually seems to be taking it somewhere you did not want the film to go.”
Isabelle, do you see any similarities between the films Eva and Elle [Paul Verhoeven’s thriller with Huppert in the leading role (2016). – Author]? After all, you played very ambiguous characters in both, and greatly succeeded.
Huppert: “If I look for, yes, I can always find a few similarities, because I played both characters, but beyond this… I think there is a kind of solitude in both characters. I mean, they are very sharp in the first place, never willing to be taken for victims, seemingly in control, but of course only seemingly. It’s obvious that behind that facade, behind this apparent control, there is something more. Benoit likes to define all characters as being divided, and not double, and I like this idea. I mean, double would imply maybe the idea of manipulation, while division implies something a bit more like a suffering, like some kind of weakness behind it. And I think in both cases that’s why there is something behind control, something more complex. But apart from this – no.”
This is the sixth time that you worked together. Have you changed each other over all these years?
Jacquot: “Has Isabelle changed since I met her? No. No, she is exactly the same Isabelle Huppert. It’s like the word ‘to be,’ ‘etre,’ which can be conjugated in all these different tenses.”
Huppert: “Now, has Benoit changed? In basic terms – no. I feel same about him, if he thinks I haven’t changed, I feel that he hasn’t changed. As a director, I think he has successfully approached the broader audience without compromising on himself, compromising anything. This is something about him that has not changed since the beginning, even though his audiences became much wider.”