Isabelle Huppert celebrates her birthday today! Her performances are perhaps some of the most memorable of any actress, bringing a distinct cold, authoritative presence to her roles. Huppert has appeared in films from a variety of renowned international directors such as Rithy Panh, Brillante Mendoza, and Claire Denis. Even so, she is best known for her work with recurring collaborators Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, and Hong Sang-soo. Without further ado, we hope you enjoy our exploration into a few of Huppert’s films in this month’s Retrospective Roundtable.
The Trout (1982)
By Henry Baime
When I first watched The Trout, it took me a significant portion of its runtime to realize it was indeed Isabelle Huppert on screen as the film came early in her career and I’m much more familiar with her later work. Still, though acting in the film early on, her talent was already fully present and her prowess as an actress undeniably strong. The film, a nonlinear story about a woman who is the obsession of two men, is often difficult to engage with but is all anchored by Huppert’s performance. She is much more understated in The Trout than she would be in some of her later roles yet still acts as the commanding center of the film.
The School of Flesh (1998)
By Alex Sitaras
Known for her collaborations with directors such as Michael Haneke and Claude Chabrol, one of Huppert’s lesser known recurring collaborators is Benoît Jacquot. Appearing in six of his films over a span of four decades (so far- it is a new decade after all), perhaps the most praised of these films is The School of Flesh. Preceding The Piano Teacher by three years, The School of Flesh also features Huppert playing the role of a woman, Dominique, involved in a troubling relationship with a younger man, Quentin (Vincent Martinez).
Their relationship is toxic not because of the difference in age between the pair, but because of how emotionally distant Quentin is and how economically advantaged Dominique is compared to Quentin. It’s arguable who is truly taking advantage of the other- Quentin has never experienced comfort in relationships and been able to trust while Domonique is subjected to Quentin’s coldness and is in some ways controlling of him. Yet, there is still love. Rather than being drawn apart, the two become obsessed with each other. Meanwhile, others are flirtatious and make advances towards Dominique similar in circumstance to Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut. Ultimately, Isabelle Huppert’s casting in The School of Flesh is essential to the film- her cold acting and screen presence enables the film’s brittle subject matter to maintain our interest.
The Piano Teacher (2001)
By Ben McDonald
The Piano Teacher was the first film of Isabelle Huppert I ever saw, and incidentally it’s perhaps her most iconic work to date. One of the most consistently astonishing aspects of Huppert’s acting is her chameleonic ability to match the energy of her director – she never feels like she’s flying solo or merely imitating a past persona – and her role in Michael Haneke’s psychologically violating masterpiece is certainly no exception. Inhabiting the world of a piano teacher with disturbing sexual urges that cross well over into the horrific, Huppert models for Haneke’s static camera like a black hole, sucking the atmosphere of every frame into a vortex of quiet, erotic intensity. There are many kinds of “unforgettable” performances – some are flamboyant, funny, tragic, or simply involve a lot of make-up. Huppert’s performance in The Piano Teacher is something else entirely, and I think anyone who has seen the film will agree with me. Only a handful of actresses can pull off the delicate, eviscerating vulnerability of Huppert here – it’s a singular work of acting that I can still recall with painful clarity over two years after seeing for the first time.
White Material (2009)
By Ben McDonald
There are some actress-director combinations that instantly sound like a match made in heaven, and White Material is surely one of them. I mentioned above that Isabelle Huppert is something of a chameleon of an actress – recognizable as a proxy for her director’s vision first, a demonstration of her immense talent second. If The Piano Teacher saw Huppert personify Michael Haneke’s observations on mankind’s darkest perversions, then White Material finds the French actress bringing to life Claire Denis’ sensuous tactility of personal memory. Every inch of Denis’ dreamy post-colonial meditation feels completely lived in by Huppert, who commands an ethereal air of naive tragedy the likes of which I’ve never seen her bear quite like this before.
Playing a French coffee plantation owner in some undisclosed, restless African nation, Huppert’s character Maria Vial is not one that can be reasoned with or even understood. Against the advice of her retreating government, the natives, and even her own family, Maria chooses to remain in Africa while armies march and the land bleeds. She’s a woman out of time and place. While the ugly smear of colonialism remains permanently appalling, it’s impossible not to feel at least a twinge of pity for Maria’s obvious existential confusion. While her denial of what is happening often defies comprehension, Huppert expertly and empathetically conveys her character’s disoriented dread, expressing through her anxious body language and only a few telling lines her devastation over losing her home and realizing the tangible blood cost of a handful of coffee beans.
In Another Country (2012)
By Eugene Kang
Director Hong Sang-soo was relatively well-known in Western cinephile circles long before In Another Country, but it was Isabelle Huppert who took the chance to actually work with the soft-spoken auteur. Framed as set of vignettes written by a young female screenwriter, In Another Country is perhaps the most accessible of Hong’s films. He is fascinated with navigating the thin line between the unspoken and spoken, and how fragile that facade is. This dichotomy is best epitomized in the many scenes in his films that revolve around food and alcohol, with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
Hong uses Huppert’s foreignness and puts her in situations that are basically riffs on the same story with recurring motifs. Much of the delight is seeing what situation Hong will put Huppert and the other actors in next and seeing the slight differences in their performances. Instead of getting repetitive, it’s almost as if one is observing three paintings of the same scene by different artists and how different themes get emphasized in each subtle but distinct variation. Despite the language barrier, Huppert clearly has complete trust in Hong and his artistry, and while she is at odds with her environment constantly, she is never condescending and has a marvelous spark of adventure even when the story doesn’t resolve positively.
By Nick Davie
Paul Verhoeven’s provocative rape revenge flick Elle is the Dutch director’s seminal manifesto on taboo desires and guilt. The titular role of Elle earned Isabelle Huppert an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, her multifaceted performance portraying a business executive attacked in her own home. Refusing to let the attack and subsequent rape alter her precisely ordered life, Elle begins to explore avenues of female power and pleasure in a world dominated by masculine aggression and desire. Huppert is typically masterful and unflinching, unwilling to accept a loss of agency, she engages in a brutal game of cat and mouse, forcing a collision course with her attacker. Verhoeven attempts to reshape European perspectives on shame and sexual desire, fully reliant on Huppert’s exposition to danger. Both work so brilliantly together to create an unstable cinematic vehicle for exploring the taboo. There is an overt presence of feminine power, navigating the troublesome territory the film wishes to explore, in which Huppert leans on her natural ability to captivate, in a darkly comedic, witty and brutal display. Somewhat sinisterly rewarding, the performance of Huppert demonstrates her ability to give life to complex characters embroiled in deeply complex situations.