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Notebook Primer: Isabelle Huppert

Relentlessly prolific and uncompromisingly daring, Isabelle Huppert has routinely delved into the enigmatic recesses of complex individuals.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Since the early 1970s, Isabelle Huppert has amassed a staggering body of work. Relentlessly prolific and uncompromisingly daring, she has embodied an eclectic range of characters, often delving into the enigmatic recesses of individuals who are by turns destructive, tormented, and obsessed, and yet can be audaciously empowered, sexually complex, and passionately reflective. Huppert “surprises and unsettles us,” notes David Parkinson, writing for the British Film Institute, doing so by “relaxing her tightly coiled control and channeling her strength and energy into doing something shockingly impulsive.”
But that control and impulsiveness was not instantaneous, nor was it effortless. Huppert’s abilities have been steadily honed over the course of more than 140 appearances in film and television. And if there is a darkness lingering over some of her more disturbing characterizations, there is also an equally gripping allurement, yielding thoughtfully expressive presentations of complicated people living in complicated times. “People aren’t bad,” Huppert once said, “it is the situations around them that are. They are just trying to survive, whether it is social or political situations.” Having worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in the world, in productions spanning the globe, Huppert’s evolving physical stature has also grown from being “almost childlike” in the words of film curator John Farr, to attaining a mature illegibility that critic David Ehrlich says is “almost Bressonian” for its lack of expression.
Born March 16, 1953, in Paris, Huppert was the youngest of five children. Encouraged by her mother early on, she began acting as a teenager, studying at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art and first emerging on television in 1971, in Le Prussien. This was followed by her film debut the next year, in Faustine et le bel été, a bit part where she plays “Student #2.” After briefly appearing in Bertrand Blier’s black comedy Going Places (Les valseuses, 1974), alongside Gérard Depardieu, Huppert received a César nomination for her role in the 1975 film, Aloïse. Two years later, her laudable turn in The Lacemaker (La dentelliere, 1977) earned her a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer. She then received a Best Actress award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival for Violette (Violette Nozière), a film based on a real murder case and Huppert’s first of seven collaborations with director Claude Chabrol.
 Above: The Lacemaker
Huppert’s first American film was Michael Cimino’s unjustly maligned western Heaven’s Gate (1980), where her “worldly demure, sexually liberated, and plucky brothel madam,” according to critic Alex Miller, forms a contentious triangle with Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, not unlike what was seen between Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, and Walken in Cimino’s earlier The Deer Hunter (1978). But for Huppert, though the relationship still has what she says is the “same ambiguity, deepness, and sensitivity,” it is “even more developed.” Huppert again paired with Depardieu on 1980's Loulou, directed by Maurice Pialat, which was followed by her role in Bertrand Tavernier’s Oscar-nominated neo-noir Coup de torchon the next year. Toward the end of the decade, Huppert and Chabrol forged new ground with Story of Women (1988), a “proto-feminist allegory come social object lesson” that, for Miller, retained “the restrained chemistry that energized their careers.”
 Above: Coup de torchon
Huppert returned to America in 1994, appearing in independent director Hal Hartley’s Amateur, and the next year, she returned to Chabrol, giving what Parkinson dubs her “finest performance” for the French New Wave icon in La cérémonie (1995). Huppert recalled Chabrol only ever cast her as “fairly ordinary characters,” but “ordinary” would hardly be the word to describe Huppert’s Erika Kohut, the eponymous lead in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). For her performance in this shocking film, a courageous exhibition and her first of four features with Haneke, Huppert won the 2001 Best Actress prize at Cannes. While more controversy came in the form of Christophe Honoré’s Ma mère (2004), where Huppert plays a mother having an incestuous relationship with her teenage son, she also confirmed her comedic talents in 2004 with I Heart Huckabees, directed by David O. Russell. This film, along with Josiane Balasko’s Sac de noeuds (1985), Amateur, and Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country (2012) ably demonstrate for Parkinson that “there’s no validity in the truism that Huppert doesn’t do comedy.”
Above: Things to Come
Huppert continued to display a remarkable range, starring in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2010 and in 2016 submitting the dual achievements of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a late-career triumph that has done as much as any film to position Huppert atop the ranks of the world’s most skilled actresses, earning her a Golden Globe and a César for Best Actress and an Academy Award nomination. Having previously worked with Serge Bozon on the 2013 comedy Tip Top (2013), Huppert reunited with the director for Mrs. Hyde, a 2017 reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, then, for the first time in her career according to Ehrlich, she played a “straight-up psychopath” in Greta (2018). In doing so, Ehrlich writes, “with the same degree of seductive froideur that she’s brought to the rest of her roles, Huppert clarifies why she’s always been one of the most intense and unnerving actresses in the world.”
Above: Greta
Huppert maintains a certain detachment when speaking about her roles and contends autobiographical links to certain films are largely unconscious. But on a connective thread between the types of women she has played, Huppert remarks, “there is a something that ties them to one another in the sense that they’re all survivors, not necessarily winners, more like winning victims, which I think is probably more close to reality than playing Amazons or Wonder Woman or things like that.” Whatever the description, Huppert’s performances have earned her an astounding array of awards and honors, receiving recognition from the National Society of Film Critics, the Césars (where she has been nominated a record 16 time), at Cannes (where she has won twice), and many others. “It is always nice to get an award,” Huppert reflected, but “movie-making is a collective effort. Even though you take the award for yourself, the credit goes to the whole team.”
Above: Elle
Although Huppert has also proven herself extremely adept acting for the stage, making her London debut in 1996, her New York debut in 2005, and receiving seven Molière Award nominations for her theatrical work, she still singles out the cinema as an exceptional art form: “I think they say a lot [about reality], movies even more so than theater. It says a lot about the invisible. ... The camera lens is like a microscope that goes beyond the surface. It’s like you’re exploring a secret, so you explore the director’s secret, you explore the actor’s secret, and therefore you explore the universe’s secrets.” As for her future work, Huppert states there are no specific roles she actively pursues but the desire is as strong as ever. “People often say I work a lot,” Huppert affirms, “it’s become a rather wearying chorus. But a lot is not necessarily too much. It’s just a lot. For me, in any case, it’s not too much… It’s never enough!” 
Above: Loulou
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • Loulou (1980): Pialat’s unpolished, wildly erratic exploration of sexuality and liberation has Huppert’s repressed, confounded character choosing between her abusive and scornful husband, played by Guy Marchand, and Depardieu’s title character, a heedless, volatile criminal. But Huppert is the central focus of the film, a cautious ode to the impulses of love and the varying repercussions of enacted liberty, eliciting what critic Matthew Lagalante writes is “an equal measure of empathy and passion.”
  • La cérémonie (1995): Going from astonishingly, even humorously impetuous to alarming and downright frightening, Huppert’s postal worker at first appears as a generally ancillary character next to Sandrine Bonnaire’s mysterious maid. But as Chabrol’s film progresses, it becomes clear Huppert’s inscrutable murderess is the one who fatally holds sway over the lives involved. Inspired by true events, La cérémonie is an unsettling, thoroughly disarming film, warranting Huppert her first Caesar win and confirming her unrivaled performative dexterity.
Above: White Material
  • The Piano Teacher (2001): Of The Piano Teacher, a captivating, disconcerting, and perversely erotic psychodrama, Huppert stated it “goes beyond everything” she had done before, a view shared by many critics at the time. Huppert’s ability to make even the most humiliating or harmful of moments resonate with an overwhelming emotional timbre alleviates the eccentric nature of certain jarring events and testifies to the complete execution of her more embattled roles.
  • White Material (2009): Huppert excels in Claire Denis’ compelling examination of colonialist conflict. Caught in the furor of race-related, politically-motivated cultural strife, Huppert plays, according to Miller, “a variation of a character she is consistent in exploring (tough, haughty), because her talents keep her from devolving into a one-dimensional archetype or caricature.” Disheartened and bewildered, her sympathetic outsider’s perspective sheds fascinating individual light on the manifold nuances of White Material’s elliptical narrative.
  • Elle (2016): While Huppert called the rape victim of Verhoeven’s ominous thriller “a post-feminist heroine,” she was keen to avoid making grand statements by playing a “complete human being [who] is not defined only by rape.” For his part, Verhoeven said he cast Huppert because no American actress would play such an amoral part. In any event, as critic Alexandra Pollard argues, “Huppert’s poised, unflappable manner, combined with her strikingly tiny frame, resulted in a character who seemed at once vulnerable and deeply resilient.”
Above: The Piano Teacher
RECOMMENDED READING
  • Isabelle Huppert Is Finally (Sort of) Going Mainstream, and She Doesn’t Hate It,” by Amy Larocca: Writing after the “double-whammy” of Elle and Things to Come, Larocca investigates the multifaceted female characters realized by Huppert throughout her career. Huppert’s heroines, she writes, are “self-possessed and forward-moving in the face of whatever hideous circumstances life delivers, able to handle road bumps with humor and grace and supreme unflappability.” And regarding their twofold vulnerability and determined charge, Larocca adds, “They cry when they need to, and are not above buying self-protective pickaxes when the occasion demands, but they are in control of their own lives, and it is both satisfying and inspiring to watch.”
  • Isabelle Huppert’s Double Gaze,” by Nel Dahl: Also picking up from Huppert’s performance in Elle, Dahl notes the actress’s moniker of the “French Meryl Streep” but points out how her career’s “variety, international scope and pure nerve outstrip even Streep’s.” As Dahl argues, Huppert’s ability to riddle her characters with “thought-provoking ambiguities” casts her in a truly incomparable light. “Latency and the subterranean are the Huppert signature and guiding principle,” the critic states. “[H]er performances are achieved primarily through imagination rather than literal experience or Method acting and question the definitions of passivity versus activity.”
  • Isabelle Huppert Talks Her Return to the Stage in ‘Phaedra(S)’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Controversial ‘Elle,’” by Hugh Montgomery: “The imperious Huppert has been making the toughest, most torturous of roles look easy for than four decades now,” writes Montgomery, who goes on to mention many of her characters as being “complex, contrarian and raw”—rarely, he notes, “has an actor’s body of work felt more like an emotional assault course.” Montgomery’s piece also examines Huppert’s theatrical work, from before she began acting in films to her most recent productions, recognizing the “heavyweight roles” that continue to compel her.
  • ‘I don’t conform’: backstage with the indomitable Isabelle Huppert,” by Laura Cappelle: Also launching with a checkup on Huppert’s stage work, Cappelle’s article delves into the personality of the celebrated actress and contextualizes her career within the social milieu of the “Me Too” movement. “Unlike many of her peers,” Cappelle observes, “Huppert has never seemed interested in being conventionally likable. It is part of her aura, and outside France, it would make her a prime candidate for flying the #MeToo flag within the film industry.” Still, she adds, “the day before Roman Polanski’s triumph at the Césars, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, when I ask her about gender inequality in her profession, Huppert gets up and briskly shows me the door.”
  • The Enduring Allure of Isabelle Huppert,” by Rachel Donadio: Donadio’s article reveals many intriguing insights into the life and work of Huppert, from her divergence with other actresses, particularly in America, to details about her generally shrouded family life, including her partner, the film producer and director Ronald Chammah, and their three children, one of whom is also an actress and has performed with Huppert in two films. “Sometimes, Huppert herself discloses, she sees American performances and says to herself, “They’re missing something, a point, just to dare to be nothing … A sense of what it means to listen, what it means to have a blank face.”

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