In praise of Isabelle Huppert

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Welcome back Simon Wardell, our guest blogger, with his piece in praise of Isabelle Huppert. Join us on the 19th at Haggler’s Corner where we will be screening Hal Hartley’s Amateur featuring a captivating performance from Isabelle.

“I don’t try to sympathise with my characters, I just try to empathise with them. To try to understand. If I sympathised with the characters I would make idealised, romantic characters out of them, which I don’t do.”

It was the freckles that got me first. As a waif-like young woman in Claude Goretta’s 1977 tragedy The Lacemaker, Isabelle Huppert’s mottled face seemed to serve as a barrier to understanding – her personality unfathomable as much to the viewer as to the other characters. I’d never seen skin like that before in the movies, but what also stayed with me most from Huppert’s breakthrough role was her combination of vulnerability and coolness (the French word, froideur, is so much better).

The Lacemaker

It’s a quality she’s displayed time and time again in a career that passed 100 films several years ago – her parallel life as a stage actor, in French and English, has been equally lauded. Watching her is never a passive experience – she seems to withhold as much as she gives out, so you’re constantly examining her actions, and that face, for glimpses of motivation. Only the best actors make you work for your enjoyment, and she’s an expert at the art.

The directors she’s worked with most – Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke – are on the same wavelength. In arguably her greatest role, Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, she is impassive and cruel – her tiny, wired body controlling, if not repressing, her emotions, as the darkness of desire takes over her life. Conversely, in Chabrol’s La Ceremonie she’s wild and wilful, a village postmistress who drags her new friend, Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid, into a campaign of class-war revenge against Bonnaire’s bourgeois employers. But there’s still something unknowable about her hate that keeps you on edge constantly, a tactic at which Chabrol is a past master.

The Piano Teacher

Hollywood came calling, of course. She held her own as a prostitute in the male-dominated, gorgeous mess that was Heaven’s Gate, but David O Russell’s frenetic I Heart Huckabees and sub-Hitchcock thriller The Bedroom Window (with Steve Guttenberg!) shouldn’t detain anyone for too long. I’ll reserve judgment on her 2010 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, with fellow guest star Sharon Stone, until I’ve seen it. Magic Lantern’s next feature presentation, Amateur, by one of the more unconventional American directors in Hal Hartley, is one of the good ’uns and shows she’s always up for a new experience (she played another nun last year in The Nun, though laughs were rather scarce on the ground there).

La Ceremonie

Huppert is still going strong at the age of 61. In the last five years she has worked with two top-drawer female directors, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis, with the latter’s White Material a fine example of why she deserves the limelight. She’s a fierce if mysterious presence in an unsettling tale of a family of colonial French coffee growers losing the plot in a civil war-torn African state. What her character’s intentions are we can only guess but it’s the challenge that keeps me coming back to that freckled countenance divine.

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