“Isabelle who…?” It’s a question I’ve gotten more times than I’d care to count this Oscar season, as audiences discover the fearless star of Paul Verhoeven’s subversive French thriller “Elle” — who just added an Independent Spirit Award to the collection of accolades the role has earned. Still, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, if you count yourself among the cinephiles who are only now learning Mme Huppert’s name (pronounced “HOO-pair”).
Just yesterday, the French film academy honored Huppert with her second César award — but even her compatriots are late to the party. She’s been nominated 16 times, but France takes the provocative — and extremely prolific — actress for granted. After all, she’s never not acting, whether it’s on stage (from “Medea” to “The Maids”) or screen (at a rate of two or three movies a year). When French audiences see “Elle,” in which her character reacts to a startling sexual assault in a most unpredictable manner, the role slyly recalls another she played more than four decades earlier, in Yves Boisset’s “The Common Man,” when she played a rape victim whose killer pins the crime on a group of local Algerian workers. By contrast, Huppert approaches “Elle’s” resilient heroine in such a way that the word “victim” simply does not apply.
London-based Variety critic Guy Lodge and I both consider Huppert to be the world’s greatest living actress, and our ex-colleague Justin Chang described her work in “Elle” as “an arguably career-best performance” (it’s an argument worth having, considering the quality of her career overall). Frankly, I doubt that even Mme Huppert has seen all of her own work. According to IMDb, the performance in “Elle,” which earned Huppert her first Oscar nomination, is actually her 101st big-screen role — though precious few of the others were in English.
So whether you’ve adored Huppert’s work for years, or still don’t have a clue who she is, take her Oscar nomination as an opportunity to catch up with a performer who gravitates to the edgy roles others avoid, and who brings so much of herself to strong, sexually transgressive characters. Here are five essential performances from her career (plus a pair of personal favorites), featuring comments Huppert made at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this month, where she was honored with the Montecito Award.
“The Lacemaker” (1977)
Huppert had appeared in more than a dozen movies before being cast in director Claude Goretta’s adaptation of the Pascal Lainé novel (among them Bertrand Blier’s wild, anarchic road movie “Going Places,” in which her character — who appears at the very end of the film — served to embody the spirit of a generation, rebelling against her bourgeois parents and, by extension, the establishment). But “The Lacemaker” was a breakthrough for Huppert, offering her a lead role in what would come to be her signature fashion, where audiences can’t be sure where the actress’s own identity ends and the character begins. Don’t let the title fool you: This isn’t a dreary period piece, but a heartbreaking (if now somewhat dated) contemporary portrait of a naïve young virgin who, left alone at the seaside when her single mom runs off for a short-lived fling, falls in with the first boy who comes along. She’s intimidated by him and his intellectual friends, and when he eventually abandons her — in the film’s heartbreaking final scenes — Huppert subtly conveys how it may well have destroyed her. The film isn’t available on DVD, but as luck would have it, can be found in its entirety on YouTube.
Arguably the secret of Huppert’s success has been her ability to work with some of the world’s greatest directors, including Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (she stars in the “Amour” director’s Cannes-bound “Happy End”) and Hong Sang-soo (whose “Claire’s Camera” will likely be there as well). But Huppert collaborated with none more than Claude Chabrol. The first of seven films they made together, “Violette Nozière” earned Huppert the best actress prize at Cannes (technically, a tie that year) and revealed a seemingly sociopathic new dimension to her sexuality that filmmakers have been toying with ever since. According to Huppert, she and Chabrol got along so well because, “We never really discussed the characters [except] a little bit before the film. … His vision was so strong, it didn’t really matter.” Inspired by the true story of a promiscuous young Parisian woman who poisoned her parents, the 1930s-set drama spins a web of secrecy and deceit in which Huppert’s character hides various liaisons with older gentlemen from her conservative and class-constricted parents. Though we struggle to understand her motives (as was Chabrol’s intention), that enigmatic dimension defines so many of Huppert’s most psychologically complex performances — including “Elle.” (Also essential viewing: Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie,” for which Huppert won her first César.)
“Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
For her American debut, Huppert once again sought to work with a world-class auteur, agreeing to play a frontier madam in Michael Cimino’s nearly-career-ending debacle “Heaven’s Gate,” a notorious fiasco that went scandalously over-schedule and over-budget, eventually leading to the collapse of United Artists studio. “It was beyond disappointing,” Huppert recalls. “Michael Cimino never made it over that failure [but] I was able to see how the failure of the film is included with the beauty of the film. You can’t disconnect one from the other. It’s a masterpiece where the redemption was part of the adventure.” Time has been kind to this misunderstood classic — though its revisionist champs go too far in the other direction. Indulgent and downright dull in stretches, the movie aspires to capture the realistic detail of a clash between rich landholders and an influx of unwelcome immigrants (plus ça change…), but the performances are peculiar. Huppert and co-star Christopher Walken are exceptional, wonderfully alive against a backdrop so expansive it threatens to swallow the actors, but leading man Kris Kristofferson is weirdly anachronistic as a bearded but otherwise body-hairless marshal caught up in the midst of the conflict.
That same year saw the release of the best of Huppert’s early performances, as a comfortably married middle-class wife who defies her violently jealous husband by sleeping with a devil-may-care drifter named Loulou, played by Gérard Depardieu. Though somewhat forgotten by critics in recent years, director Maurice Pialat has recently enjoyed something of a rediscovery as scholars made the connection between his aesthetic — so raw and austere in its time — and contemporary world cinema (evident in the work of everyone from “Blue Is the Warmest Color’s” Abdellatif Kechiche to the Dardennes brothers). There’s something ruthless and confrontationally unromantic in Pialat’s worldview, resulting in characters who seem alive, impulsive, and completely unpredictable — which, as it happens, are the sort that Huppert plays best, capturing the relatable side of people who might not be conventionally “sympathetic” (in this case, a woman who ultimately decides to terminate her pregnancy at a time when that choice was even more scandalous than it is today). As Huppert puts it, “You can be dislikable and [still] have empathy for someone. … I think [overly] sympathetic characters are a little bit suspicious.” Never shy about nudity, Huppert bares more than her body in “Loulou,” revealing so much of her own soul that we in turn recognize ourselves in the character — which is where the film’s power lies.
“The Piano Teacher” (2001)
While not a disciple of Pialat’s per se, Michael Haneke has effectively perfected the French director’s aesthetic, carrying on the tradition of formal restraint and rigorous naturalism in his unnerving adaptation of Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek’s novel. “With Michael Haneke, we started by not doing a movie together, which I think was a good start,” explains Huppert, who turned down the lead role in his confrontational 1997 meta-thriller “Funny Games.” “Compared to ‘Funny Games,’ ‘The Piano Teacher’ was a nice soap opera,” she jokes, though the film is every bit as twisted in its own way. In a role that earned her a second best actress prize at Cannes, Huppert plays a music instructor whose bizarre relationship with her mother rivals only Norman Bates’ and whose sexual proclivities — which include masochism, voyeurism, and various other kinks not fit for print — make it impossible for her to establish a healthy relationship with a younger pupil. The character would have surely seemed far too alien in the hands of a lesser actress, but Huppert manages to bridge the gap between this “unsympathetic” character and the audience, inviting us to identify with a woman who herself seems incapably of empathy. It is, in my humble opinion, the greatest screen performance by any actress ever.
“Private Property” (2006) & “Things to Come” (2016)
Think of these two films as a bonus, since Huppert’s more recent work — which includes such standout achievements as Claire Denis’ 2009 “White Material” (which, like Rithy Panh’s less successful “The Sea Wall” a year earlier, finds her as a sort of colonial Scarlett O’Hara) and Patrice Chéreau’s 2005 “Gabrielle” (although Huppert is such a modern performer, it can be jarring to watch her in costume dramas) — is much more widely known. But “Private Property” and “Things to Come” represent two of the finest films ever to tackle the subject of divorce. In the latter, Huppert plays a philosophy teacher abandoned by her husband after 25 years of marriage. The same thing happened to director Mia Hansen Love’s mother, and her moving portrait captures a woman strong enough to take such devastating news and soldier on with her life. Huppert hopes to soon reteam with Joachim Lafosse, the young Belgian director whose “Private Property” depicts the effects that divorce can have on two grown children, played by real-life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier. When Huppert’s character tries to move on, her sons intercede with tragic consequences in a film that is so formally controlled (the only time the camera ever moves is between cuts) it hinges on the strength of Huppert’s performance.