Plainly the best

Is­abelle Hup­pert has had a pro­found ef­fect on French cin­ema, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Lyn­den Bar­ber

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

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