At times she is repulsive. If the appeal of an actor begins at the encounter of her human form, Isabelle Huppert, arguably France’s most masterful and compelling actress, can put off. At first, perhaps, it was a question of age. As a young woman Huppert was a rose gold blonde, freckled, pale: she appeared to live at a different resolution from those around her. In itself, this distinction is an advantage for a star: in any frame, the eye is compelled by her presence. But unlined, her feline face—the staunch brow and cheek, the graceful mouth, the clear green eyes that take in everything but reveal little—can make her emotions feel recalcitrant, her reserve willful or arbitrary. With age come stakes; the heft of a tendency becomes hardened, a quality transforms into a handicap. At 64, Huppert’s face is as stunning as it’s ever been, but it’s as if years have cut away frivolity. Her neutrality now conveys the most subtle temperatures of discernment and of compulsion. Isabelle Huppert is foremost an actress of maturity.
The most instructive introduction to her work is Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, a breakthrough film though decades into her career that brings her passionate temperament in conflict with the terminal dilemmas of middle age. The drama follows the affair between Erika (Huppert), a repressed conservatory instructor, and Walter (Benoît Magimel), the pupil with whom she engages in an obsessive, sadomasochistic affair. Overwhelmed by desire, Walter forces Erika from a bathroom stall and embraces her, the culmination of an inexorable attraction. In his arms, limp, Erika allows herself to be held, revealing nothing of her own feeling. It is a powerful non-behavior, an existence through non-existence. Repeatedly Walter attempts a sexual encounter; Erika participates and then refuses to give in to the desire she seems to feel. The scene is a counterpoint to the minutes-long kiss in Hitchcock’s Notorious, where the British director interrupts an embrace with whispered dialogue to subvert censors and to raise the audience’s erotic temperature. Here the odd coitus interruptus compels the characters; frustration brings Erika and her audience a grim fascination. She agrees to be involved with Walter but only under conditions requiring her own degradation, which she will describe in a letter. Later, on the street, a passerby slams into her, and resolutely in character, Huppert is thrown back. Her body is outside her control, an automaton. Haneke’s film isn’t supernatural, but it feels like a thriller: Erika would appear to be possessed.
Huppert’s character becomes more disturbing the more we follow her; she finds herself the sole woman among a half dozen men at a porn shop. In a private booth, she watches hardcore films and reaches for a discarded tissue, containing the previous occupant’s ejaculate, holds it to her face and inhales. For the duration, her face is watchful, open, neutral. She might be compelled but she is not exactly excited. She might be learning arousal, as Zizek asserts, or, in the truest sense of perversion, her desires might express themselves only in elaborately redirected behaviors. This blankness, this doll-like stance is what perhaps has obstructed Huppert from being attractive in the sense that a star is normally attractive. A star’s charisma draws a viewer into the subjectivity of a role and leads her through a story. For much of her career Huppert does not attempt to draw in; merely, supremely, she embodies. She behaves with the reflexive ugliness of the unwatched.
“It’s being aware of what it is to lose oneself, just before you abandon everything.” Erika describes her favorite composer, Robert Schumann, who battled mental illness, but the narrative is clearly a message about herself. In The Piano Teacher, sensuality is exclusively the domain of music. As with many Huppert characters, Erika holds a tenacious grip on the unhappy world she inhabits; the precipice beyond her considerable defenses is terrifying.
Isabelle Huppert’s star is inextricably connected to the work of several directors, beginning with Claude Chabrol, for whom she played Violette Noziere (1978), a woman convicted of killing both her parents. Chabrol’s career began alongside French New Wave colleagues Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, but Chabrol’s tastes adhered more strictly to genre, deepening the definition of mystery and noir rather than hybridizing it (as perhaps Truffaut did). In his leading lady, Chabrol recognized an artist who paints with a similarly bloodied brush. For Huppert is a thematic rather than a chameleonic actress. She has, for example, played a title role in Jean Genet’s The Maids and a principle in Chabrol’s La Cérémonie—both parts based upon the case of Christine and Léa Papin, French maids who brutally murdered their employers. She returns to and elaborates upon certain emotional defenses: repression as protection, perversion as empowerment, murder as agency.
When asked if she had a role model, Huppert has said outright that she has none. She grew up outside Paris and had seen few films before she began acting as a teenager. In this sense, among others, she is an actress of instinct and self-creation. She certainly has craft but is loathe to talk about the genesis of a character. She speaks about a role as an experience, in the French sense of the word, connoting an experiment. She learns through doing, and thereby bypasses judging her characters. “In fact, I never say character, I say person,” Huppert has protested, as if the reminder of the fiction estranges her from commingling with the role.
All the same, Huppert is a remarkably nuanced interview subject, gamely loquacious, even flirty, strikingly attentive. She understands the purpose of press: not only to sell a particular film but to seduce the audience. She plays with the conflation of performer and fiction, knowing that an essential component of her specific success is the link between the living person and the acted role. How does Huppert the woman bridge the transformation to the extremity of her imaginary characters? Is it punishing to live these fictions; or, conversely, does she contain so many characteristics of these contradictory women that they are merely extensions of herself? In other words, is Huppert more of an actress or more of a star?
Perhaps because of the longevity of her career and her precocious capacity for dramatic roles, Huppert has been contextualized as a French Meryl Streep. But the comparison is an injustice to both. While Streep has broadened her oeuvre with forays into comedy, Huppert has doubled down as femme fatale, even when her films are not strictly speaking film noir. Consistent with noir’s dark angels, her characters’ domestic needs are often negligible, living outside of marriage and motherhood. Their emotional and libidinal appetites are satisfied in grapples for power. As provocative as these parts are, the roles are not gratuitous. Huppert turned down Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games in which two men capture and torture a family, saying that the film’s violence was more conceptual than dramatic. She was not in tune with terrorizing an audience instead of telling a story, a distinction that suggests that despite the extremity of her roles, Huppert is more actor than provocateur. In this sense she may be closer in craft and in taste to Nicole Kidman, another redhead whose physical presence and finely tuned froideur make her excel as a psychologically nuanced anti-hero. One can also put forth a case for Huppert as auteur, since a Huppert role confers the tension of unchecked transgression, as distinct as the alien authority imparted by Tilda Swinton, or the glamorizing spell of Catherine Deneuve, or the emotional floridity of Juliette Binoche.
Huppert was close friends with Natalie Sarraute, whose seminal nouveau roman Tropisms and fictionalized biography Enfance define a narrative self in nearly preconscious rushes of dialogue. Huppert, whose characters are pointedly precise in gesture and feeling, is nonetheless an actress minted in deconstruction. Every Huppert scene is about a multiplicity of feelings and desires, about disconnected pieces of a woman cohabitating uneasily. “I don’t think I ever played a bad woman, I played women in bad situations. But conversely, I like exploring monstrous situations. Monstrosity as something normal, something unrecognizable.”
Huppert is a kind of siren. Seemingly any director will do anything to cast her. When Michael Cimino was fresh from the success of his five Academy Award wins for The Deer Hunter and planning the period western Heaven’s Gate, the director looked at every A-list actress for his lead. Huppert’s English was not as supple as it is today, but Cimino demanded that she play the prostitute who enchants Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken. Cimino’s insistence on casting Huppert was one of the earliest signs of trouble for the production (its pointillistic depiction of the Old West led to budgetary excesses that helped to bankrupt United Artists). Huppert has been notably miscast in other English language productions, in offbeat comedies (such as Hal Hartley’s Amateur and in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees) and in dramas where she’s cast as the powerful mother to a starring actress (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Dead Man Down). But the misfires always seem to be a misconception of production rather than performer. Huppert can also be the key to a director’s rebirth, as in the case of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
Elle begins swiftly with a home invasion and rape. Huppert’s Michele would normally be called the victim; a masked perpetrator leaves her violated and bloodied on her dining room floor. Without conforming to the conventions of a vengeance drama, Michele is not remotely a victim. She gives no evidence of an urge for retribution in a legal or an extra-legal sense. She brushes up the broken glass, disposes of her torn dress, and orders sushi. She lies in her bath, contemplating the bloom of blood floating above her body. But when the rapist continues to contact her, Michele employs a coolly improvisational bravado to best him on his perverse terms. Huppert has admitted she likes to snoop and to unearth, to peek behind doors at dinner parties. In Elle, we witness the result of that curiosity, as Huppert employs a woman’s most contradictory, even pathological urges as weapons against violation. About her Oscar-nominated role, she has said, “[Michele] is prototype, a new type of a woman. She’s a post-feminist character, building her own behavior in space. She doesn’t want to be a victim no… she’s the result of men’s failure.” And though Michele remains something of a mystery in the film—it is unclear whether her psychology evolves or remains unchanged as she continues onward to new chapters of complication—here at last we find Huppert in a role that reaches out to an audience. Her Elle is not to be emulated, but the character has humor and power, an amorality that is loathsome and admirable. She is a bit of a scoundrel; she is a survivor. As Huppert has said, “In reality, people are never to be reduced to one definition… Life is not one genre.”