Plainly the best
Isabelle Huppert has had a profound effect on French cinema, writes
IN the French cinema of the late 1970s and ’ 80s Isabelle Huppert was, like Gerard Depardieu, so ubiquitous she appeared to have been cloned. Since then, as she has kept working, sometimes on the stage, it has become increasingly clear she is the greatest woman of the French screen to have emerged during the past 30 years and one of the finest actors in the world.
As critic Ginette Vincendeau wrote in British film journal Sight and Sound last year, ‘‘ No other actress has a presence that has shaped French cinema more profoundly.’’
Huppert’s pale, freckly features can look plain one minute, strikingly beautiful the next. She takes extraordinary risks in her choice of roles, having made a specialty of difficult or transgressive women: emotional basket cases ( her 1977 breakthrough film, The Lacemaker ), murderers ( La Ceremonie ; Merci pour le chocolat ), hookers ( La vie promise ; Sauve qui peut ), incestuously inclined mothers ( Ma mere ), adulterers ( Loulou , Madame Bovary , Gabrielle ) and psychotic self- mutilators ( The Piano Teacher ).
So it is fitting that Melbourne’s Australian Centre of the Moving Image has curated a season of 20 of her films and a photographic exhibition for a special tribute that will start screening on June 29 before touring interstate in slightly altered form.
Huppert has worked for some of France’s most revered directors including Claude Chabrol ( seven films), Jean- Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, Bertrand Tavernier, Diane Kurys, Bertrand Blier and Andre Techine. She has also made two films for Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke and made forays into English- language cinema for Australian Paul Cox ( Cactus ) and Americans Hal Hartley ( Amateur ) and Michael Cimino ( Heaven’s Gate ).
While her talent is undeniable, Huppert’s appeal is hard to pin down. Mousy- haired, often impassive, Huppert would at first glance seem ill- equipped for the — and the cliche is unavoidable — ‘‘ iconic’’ status that is undeniably hers.
The camera does not love her in the same way it adores more conventional beauties such as Sophie Marceau or Catherine Deneuve. It prefers to probe her face for its subtlety of expression and chameleon- like quality, her beauty continually disappearing and reappearing. This fugitive brand of beauty is one of her key assets, enabling her at one moment to play a drab, small- town illegal abortionist ( Story of Women), at another, a glammed- up 1950s lesbian ( Coup de foudre , aka Entre nous ), though this latter role was atypical.
As Haneke, who directed her in The Piano Teacher , once observed, ‘‘ I do not consider Isabelle to be a very glamorous person. To me, Julia Roberts is glamorous, but if you look at Isabelle’s films, there are really a lot of them that show her in a very delicate, simple way.’’
Haneke added, ‘‘ On the one hand she can be very vulnerable, and on the other she can be very icy and intellectual. She’s the victim in the same moment that she is the perpetrator, and there are not many [ who] have that range.’’
At the heart of her acting is a striking lack of artifice, mannerism or stylistic flourish. Her technique remains thoroughly invisible. Huppert has the uncanny ability to project inner depth and complexity while often seeming to do nothing much. Place her next to, say, Cate Blanchett, who is unquestionably a fine actor, and the differences in acting styles will be immediately apparent. Both trained in the theatre, yet only Huppert seems consistently to leave the stage behind when she is on camera.
At 54, Huppert shows no signs of slowing down. As she has matured, her acting seems to have accrued even greater depth, as evidenced by her most recent roles. In Chabrol’s The Comedy of Power she is a joy to watch as a crusading anti- corruption magistrate busting the balls of arrogant businessmen.
In Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle , a 19th- century chamber drama of marital breakdown adapted from Joseph Conrad, her usual mask of impassivity breaks down as she plays the unfaithful wife of a smug husband. It is an unusually emotional role played at times through a well of tears. Both films found approval on the local festival circuit, though sadly failed to gain commercial cinema release.
In recent years, local audiences are more likely to have encountered Huppert in David O’Russell’s offbeat US comedy I Heart Huckabees , Francois Ozon’s campily forgettable ensemble piece, 8 Women, and more memorably, in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, in which she plays a sexually repressed Viennese music teacher with strict standards and bizarre personal proclivities.
No one who has seen Haneke’s film will easily forget the scene in which Huppert calmly mutilates her vagina with a razor blade, or her writhing on a toilet floor with one of her pupils. The role — like much of her work — plays out like a classic Freudian case study ; it won her a second best actress award at Cannes.
Critics praised her bravery, but perverse or violent characters are hardly virgin turf; witness Chabrol’s Violette Noziere in which she plays a teenage parent- killer ( winning her first Cannes award in 1978) and Godard’s Sauve qui peut ( called Slow Motion for the English- speaking world), in which her prostitute undergoes bizarre humiliations including a customer paying to stare up her derriere while negotiating a business deal.
Although Huppert has made roughly 100 films and TV films, most of them in starring roles, her profile has been that of a serious actor rather than a star. She has chosen her roles carefully, tending to work with directors she knows she can trust.
These choices have made her the thinking person’s film actor, evidenced by her having guest- edited the serious French journal Cahiers du Cinema , for which she interviewed philosopher Jean Baudrillard.
Unlike her contemporary and namesake Isabelle Adjani, whose romance with Daniel Day- Lewis was tabloid fodder, Huppert has kept her private life exactly that. And unlike former teen criminal Depardieu, her co- star in Les valseuses and Loulou , her upbringing seems to have been boringly middle- class and safe: hence, perhaps, her attraction to dangerous characters. No skeletons in the closet? They would all appear to be on screen.
Thinking person’s actor: Isabelle Huppert in Les soeurs fachees