Isabelle Huppert: The Big Chill

Film still for Isabelle Huppert: The Big Chill

The Actors: No other actress has a presence that has shaped French cinema more profoundly than Isabelle Huppert. Her pale, freckled and often frosty demeanour can suggest so much more than it shows. By Ginette Vincendeau

Actress Isabelle Huppert has been a ubiquitous presence in French and European cinema of the last 35 years. At the same time, remarkably, she appears not to age: hers are not (as far as one can see) the collagen-enhanced or airbrushed good looks of some of her contemporaries. Over the decades her features have become gaunter, and fine lines have marked her often pallid face. But as her screen husband (Pascal Greggory) says of her character in Gabrielle (2005): "Paleness is one of her attractions."

Huppert has made almost 100 films and telefilms since the early 1970s, about three-quarters of them in starring roles, and has also pursued a stage career. It's a trajectory that has been handsomely rewarded: she won a Bafta for The Lacemaker (La Dentellière) in 1977, two Best Actress awards at Cannes (for Violette Nozière in 1978 and The Piano Teacher/La Pianiste in 2001), two Volpi cups at Venice (for Une affaire de femmes in 1988 and La Cérémonie in 1995), as well as a César for La Cérémonie, a Silver Bear at Berlin for 8 Women (8 femmes) in 2002, and many other prestigious prizes and nominations. Her prolific career and her versatility (not to say eclecticism) have done nothing to dent a reputation based on discrimination and quality. While she has featured in some popular films, hers is an image largely associated with the cerebral cachet of auteur cinema.

The young Huppert studied acting almost by chance, after her mother registered her at the Versailles Conservatoire, from which she graduated with a First Prize. From there she moved for a year to the Rue Blanche acting school in Paris and subsequently to the Conservatoire National. She worked a little in theatre, under the direction, among others, of Robert Hossein and her sister Caroline Huppert (who also became a film-maker). But success beckoned faster in cinema, and she would not appear on stage again until 1988.

Alongside several small parts, including one in Otto Preminger's penultimate film Rosebud (1975), two early roles indicated what was to come. The first was in Les Valseuses (1974), as a teenager who drops her petit-bourgeois parents to pursue sexual initiation at the hands of Gérard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere and Miou-Miou. The second, in Docteur Françoise Gailland (1975), was as Annie Girardot's rebellious daughter, a high-voltage relationship that was reprised in more chilling mode 26 years later in The Piano Teacher. In both films Huppert builds a persona formed of a cool verging on insolence, youthful sexuality and rebellion. At the same time, a curious public got a first good look at her 'unusual' features: the slim body, the red hair, the pale skin with freckles, the curve of the upper lip - and, in those days, child-like round cheeks that enabled her to play characters younger than she was. Unlike her contemporary Isabelle Adjani, the young Huppert was not a stunning beauty. She could even look 'plain' (as the producers of Heaven's Gate thought when Michael Cimino insisted on casting her), yet she possessed not only charisma and a sexual aura but also considerable acting talent.

Her first major success was as the heroine of Claude Goretta's The Lacemaker, in which she plays a shy and uneducated hairdresser's apprentice who falls in love with a young man who is her social and intellectual superior. The unhappy love affair leads to breakdown and internment in a mental institution. The film added further layers to Huppert's earlier characterisations, namely melancholy and a victimised, bruised passivity that would also be in evidence in her parts in Aloïse (1974), Dupont Lajoie (1975) and Les Indiens sont encore loin (1977). But perhaps the most memorable aspect of her contribution to these films was her ability to express those feelings through the blankness of her performance: she could make her dull, vacant stare speak volumes.

The following year came another defining part, in Claude Chabrol's Violette Nozière. Violette was modelled on the real-life case of a woman who had poisoned her parents, killing her father. Her trial caused a scandal in 1933 Paris, partly because the surrealists celebrated her 'transgressive', anti-family behaviour. Huppert's interpretation of the character exuded a sexual intensity that slid into 'perversity' in its alliance of sex with murder, transmuting the melancholic innocence of the protagonist of The Lacemaker into something harder, colder and more ambiguous.

Monstrous instincts

The Lacemaker and Violette Nozière won critical and public acclaim that led Huppert to stardom, and throughout her thirties, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, she appeared in a string of remarkable films by prominent film-makers. Maurice Pialat's Loulou and Jean-Luc Godard's Slow Motion/(Sauve qui peut (la vie), both from 1980, epitomise the way her characters embodied resistance through sexuality, within a pain-filled, almost masochistic register (Huppert claims she agreed to Godard's film after the director told her just one sentence about the role: "Hers is the face of suffering").

In Loulou Huppert plays a middle-class woman who falls for Gérard Depardieu's working-class hooligan. A key feature of her performance is the impassive harshness with which she faces down her lovers' desires: rejecting her distraught partner (Guy Marchand) for Loulou (Depardieu), then thwarting the latter's wish for a child by having an abortion. Here hysteria is the province of the men, while Huppert's character remains in control. Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie) contains a notorious scene in which Huppert's prostitute is the ringleader in a 'daisy chain' with a wealthy client and another prostitute. The scene encapsulates the perverse, cerebral sexuality that became a signature of the Huppert persona, and even if in her next collaboration with Godard, Passion (1982), she played a factory worker, the intellectual label stuck; as she told Positif: "One cannot say the character was cerebral, but it was a Godard film."

Huppert did, however, appear in more accessible works including Diane Kurys' At First Sight (Coup de foudre, 1983), in which she plays Léna, a character based on the film-maker's mother. Pursuing her attraction to the more emotional Madeleine (Miou-Miou), Léna displays a harshness towards her husband (Guy Marchand) and even her children as she negotiates her divorce - only Huppert could show such cold determination and remain sympathetic. She also featured, alas too rarely, in comedies such as Bertrand Blier's My Best Friend's Girl (La Femme de mon pote, 1983) and Bertrand Tavernier's Clean Slate (Coup de torchon, 1981), where she clearly relished investing bitchy characters with playful self-irony. It was also during this period that she took part in the extravagant folly of Heaven's Gate (1980), where she plays a brothel madam who has an affair with the two male heroes (Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken) and is gang-raped - interestingly meshing her own persona with the dominant sexualised image of the European actress in Hollywood films. The movie's spectacular failure put an end to any thoughts of a Hollywood career, though Huppert would subsequently feature in US indie films.

Since the late 1980s Huppert's almost continuous cinema work has been accompanied by a high-profile return to the stage: in Arthur Honegger's Jeanne au bûcher at the Opéra-Bastille in 1992; in an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando in 1993; and in Medea in 2000. An English-speaking excursion to London, as the heroine of Schiller's Mary Stuart in 1996, was not altogether successful, with the actress' heavily accented voice failing to carry across the auditorium of the National Theatre.

In film she has worked with the cream of international auteurs, including Werner Schroeter (in the baroque, quasi-operatic Malina, 1991), Hal Hartley (in the offbeat Amateur, 1994, as a former nun who writes pornography), and Raúl Ruiz (Comedy of Innocence, 2000) among others. In France she has championed first-time or little-known film-makers (for instance Alexandra Leclère in the comedy Me and My Sister/Les Soeurs fâchées, 2004). But broadly speaking, Isabelle Huppert's roles have followed two paths consistent with her early performances. One strand has continued the unhappy isolation of The Lacemaker - in psychological dramas such as Diane Kurys' Après l'amour (1992) or Christian Vincent's La Séparation (1994) as well as in costume films such as Chabrol's Madame Bovary (1991), Olivier Assayas' Les Destinées sentimentales (2000) and Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle. In all these performances, her sad, pale face is frequently awash with tears. (Indeed, even in François Ozon's postmodern comedy 8 Women, where she provides an exuberant turn as 'spinster' aunt Augustine, she sings a tearful number.) This persistent melancholy, twinned with the fact that many of her characters die, prompted the film magazine 24 images to ask: "More than any contemporary actress, we have seen you die in the cinema and the theatre… Don't you want to have a little fun?"

Huppert's collaborations with Chabrol, with whom she has made six films, probably come closest to the category of 'fun'. Yet most of these parts belong to the thread in her career that spins out from the 'cerebral-perverse' core established in Violette Nozière. In La Cérémonie (based on a Ruth Rendell novel) she plays a psychotic killer; in Merci pour le chocolat (2000, based on a thriller by Charlotte Armstrong) she is truly evil.

Chabrol's description of Huppert's character in Une affaire de femmes (1988), the story of an abortionist during the German occupation, as at once "perfectly full of pathos" and "perfectly disgusting" applies to many other performances as the actress' roles moved increasingly towards violence and sexual extremism. In Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher she reaches limits of self-mutilation and masochism. In Ma mère (2004, based on a Georges Bataille novel) her character indulges in voyeurism, group sex and mother-son incest. As Huppert admitted to Télérama in 2000: "I like exploring monstrous instincts."

Huppert seems to have found a niche in this kind of role, and her presence lends cultural legitimacy to such films. But her prolific output has ensured she is not entirely typecast, and over the last ten years or so she has played a number of strong women - Emma Bovary, Marie Curie in Les Palmes de M. Schutz (1997), Mme de Maintenon in Patricia Mazuy's Saint-Cyr (2000) - with great passion and agency, even if here too she has maintained her characteristic cool. She once said to Positif that "The greatest books and films are those that mix distance and emotion" - an observation that goes to the heart of her own performance style.

This combination of coldness and sexual passion could be said to recall Catherine Deneuve, yet while Deneuve embodies the contrast between smooth surface beauty and underlying 'perversity' (archetypically in Belle de jour), Huppert bluntly veers from one to the other. Unlike Deneuve or Adjani, she can also look really drab, as in Passion, La Cérémonie and The Piano Teacher. This chameleon-like ability may derive from Huppert's theatrical training, but it also endows her with a crucial authenticity and gives depth to even her most opaque roles.

Opacity, intellectualism and authenticity have characterised Huppert almost from the start - and apply equally to the auteur cinema she has served so well. Following in the footsteps of New Wave actresses such as Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina and Emmanuelle Riva, Huppert aligns herself with the director as auteur ("The essential rule for me is the director… I tend to be guided. I don't mind at all being an instrument"). When she was invited to guest-edit an issue of Cahiers du cinéma (March 1994), she filled the pages with interviews with film-makers (Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat), writers (Nathalie Sarraute, Antoinette Fouque), artist Pierre Soulages, philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and so on. The exercise was doubly revealing: of Cahiers' willingness to embrace Huppert as one of its own (the Editorial talks of "an actress metamorphosed into a director") and of her wish to belong to this most prestigious coterie.

Huppert has also described acting as "a ceaseless exploration of myself", and has said: "I don't see why I should vanish behind my roles." Such statements reveal a contradiction between the desire to remain unknown and the need to be exposed. Her opacity on screen has long been matched by a secrecy about her off-screen life and she has succeeded in maintaining a relative degree of privacy (she is one of a gifted brood of siblings that includes novelists, actresses and film-makers; she is married to film-maker Ronald Chammah and has three children).

Over the last three years or so, however, France has been gripped by a frenzy of celebrity culture, as la presse people (the celebrity media) has mercilessly exposed politicians' and stars' private lives. In this 'great unravelling' (the title of a recent French book on the subject), the pressure to reveal all is constantly ratcheted up. Yet even in a Paris-Match cover story ("Isabelle Huppert - the Secret Star", September 2004) that had photographers follow her in 'anonymous' mode through the streets of Tokyo, Huppert gave little away. She needs the media to promote her films, yet like many other French stars she is keen to reiterate her distance (and distaste) from the business of doing so. As novelist François Weyergans said in the interview accompanying the Paris-Match reportage: "She wants to be talked about, but she doesn't want to play the game of those who are talked about."

Still looking fabulous

Throughout her career Huppert has shown an extraordinary ability to evoke extremes of sadism (psychotic killers, cruel sluts) and of masochism (all those sad, tearful women). But her best films are those that combine the two - from Violette Nozière to Madame Bovary. A Comedy of Power (L'Ivresse du pouvoir, 2006) and Gabrielle also fall within this category, demonstrating how French womanhood is still held back by patriarchal culture and how sexuality is a crucial factor in maintaining the status quo. When Huppert's characters adopt extreme, 'transgressive' sexual practices, their capacity as social beings is minimised; but even when these women play prominent roles in society, they are undermined by sexuality. This is particularly evident in A Comedy of Power, Chabrol's take on recent financial and political scandals, in which Huppert is an investigating judge who hunts down corrupt company executives and politicians. But while her professional life is exciting and fulfilling, her private life fails for the most conventional of reasons: because her powerful career threatens her marriage.

In Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle Huppert's character is a cipher that her performance must to some extent flesh out (in the Joseph Conrad story from which the film is adapted, the wife is both nameless and silent). Here Huppert looks fabulous, shrouded in black veils or draped in vintage underwear, delivering cutting witticisms at dinner parties and coldly presiding over the mental demolition of her husband. As she lies in bed in a white nightdress, Ophelia-like, ostensibly offering herself to her husband, she manages to convey both raw sexuality and complete frigidity. And the film also confirms Huppert's uncanny agelessness: as François Weyergans said at the end of his interview, quoting a Balzac novel, she is "a woman [who] appears 36 times more beautiful and younger than ten years before."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012