Two with Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert in André Téchiné’s My New Friends (2024)

In both Hong Sangsoo’s A Traveler’s Needs and André Téchiné’s My New Friends, Isabelle Huppert plays a single woman whose life takes a fresh turn when she befriends a young stranger. Huppert previously worked with Hong on In Another Country (2012) and Claire’s Camera (2017), and she tells Variety’s Patrick Frater that she hopes their third collaboration, which has premiered in competition in Berlin, won’t be their last.

“I can only hope that it goes on like this forever,” she says, and she seems eager to dispel any misconceptions about the ways Hong makes his many films—A Traveler’s Needs is his thirty-first feature. “It is the least-improvised approach you could imagine,” says Huppert. “It is all written. It is very precise . . . Hong always takes his time to do many, many takes . . . He makes me reflect profoundly on the meaning of cinema. Hong’s methods make me remember how cinema can be so vast and also so small. He manages to preserve both the power and scale of cinema while working almost alone. It is fascinating.”

We never learn how or why Huppert’s Iris has arrived in South Korea, but we do eventually discover that Inguk (Ha Seongguk), a young student and musician, spotted her one day playing the recorder—quite badly, too—alone on a park bench and has taken her in. It was his idea that she give French lessons to make ends meet, and she’s come up with a teaching method that she readily admits to her students is completely unorthodox and untested.

Two lessons play out almost identically, line for line. In one, Kim Seungyun, who appeared in Hong’s in water last year, somewhat competently plays a tune on the piano, and the second lesson features Lee Hyeyoung (A Novelist’s Film, Walk Up) on guitar. Twice, Iris asks her student—in English—how she felt playing the piece. And she won’t settle for “Happy.” She probes until each student utters something from the heart, and this is the sentence she writes down on an index card in French. The student is to recite the sentence on a cassette for Iris’s Walkman, a prop that suggests that Iris is not only a woman out of place but also out of time.

Either as an experiment or as a method she sincerely believes in, Iris proposes that if a student delivers a statement she’s emotionally engaged with—her awareness of vocabulary or grammar be damned—the language will truly come alive. In the film’s third passage, Iris slips out of Inguk’s apartment when his mother shows up unexpectedly, discovers Iris’s belongings, and gives him a whiny dressing down for inviting a stranger into his life—especially a woman more or less as old as she is.

“There is certainly a lot of subtle patterning here,” suggests Jonathan Romney in Screen: “three characters suddenly moved to give Iris a taste of their musical talents; two poems inscribed in stone, by twentieth-century Korean writer Yoon Dongju; the curious use of a certain shade of green in Iris’s cardigan, her ballpoint pen, and a flat roof on which her espadrilles emit comic squishing sounds.” At Film Verdict, Clarence Tsui is not won over. “Having placed all his bets solely on Huppert’s eerie presence,” he writes, “Hong has somehow forgotten to reinforce his screenplay with his trademark barbed humor and nuanced tristesse.”

So far, though, Tsui is an outlier. A Traveler’s Needs “finds the indefatigable Korean auteur at his most puckishly cryptic,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Some of the film’s loveliest scenes show Iris contentedly alone, eating bibimbap in a quiet café or—alcohol of course being the lifeblood of this director’s cinema—getting woozily drunk on makgeolli, the milky rice wine that has drawn out some rich confessions in Hong’s past, but here induces a soft calm. Iris seems at once blissful and sorrowful, or maybe neither, given the projection that A Traveler’s Needs requires of us. Either way, she appears to exist almost exclusively in the present tense.”

For Little White LiesDavid Jenkins, this is “one of Hong’s most outwardly funny films, and he reminds us (once more) that while Huppert may be best known for her ‘straight’ performances for the likes of Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, Paul Verhoeven et al., at her heart she is a titan of slapstick and cultivating screen awkwardness to an almost unbearable degree. Just the way she sips her makgeolli is a joy to behold.”

In My New Friends, there’s no mystery and very little joie de vivre—yet—in Huppert’s Lucie, a cop returning to work one year after Slimane (Moustapha Mbengue), her partner both on the job and at home, killed himself. She takes part in rallies supporting the police but otherwise lives a quiet life alone, leaving her home only to jog through the streets of an anonymous suburb in southwestern France.

When a family moves in next door, Lucie lends a hand to Julia (Hafsia Herzi) and her eight-year-old daughter, Rose (Romane Meunier), and eventually meets Yann (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the loving but often absent father. In no time, the four of them are hanging out at bowling alleys and the like, and when Lucie finds out that Yann is entrenched in a network of anti-cop activists, she decides not to tell her new friends what she does for a living.

Such a secret cannot, of course, be kept for very long. Yann breaks off with her, but Lucie and Julia remain close. And then one day, Yann needs Lucie’s help. “The road to bad movies is often paved with good intentions, and that’s unfortunately the case with My New Friends,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “Téchiné, who’s now eighty, has had some hits and misses in his long career,” and his “most memorable recent work was the beautifully acted gay teen drama Being 17, which premiered in Berlin back in 2016. The three features he’s made since then have been less impressive.”

Screen’s Allan Hunter disagrees. “The discovery of common ground between people who seem worlds apart has been a constant in Téchiné’s fifty-year career,” he writes. “He revisits that theme here with a conviction that is highly engaging.”

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