20 September 2008

Field Guide: Isabelle Huppert

In Nue propriété

Les Soeurs fâchées got a limited release in the U.S., but American audiences probably missed out on half the joke, or more: what’s fun about the film is the way it tweaks our expectations of the leading actresses. If you don’t know the actresses, you have no expectations to tweak. Catherine Frot plays largely to type, yet hers isn’t the comic role — that honor goes to Isabelle Huppert, though she’s also playing to type. This time, she delivers her famous nervous intensity strictly for laughs. Her brittleness becomes the point. And, smart lady that she is, Huppert is very much in on the joke; she did something similar in Ozon’s 8 Femmes (8 Women), too. Her tiniest tics, so often ominous, become hilarious, and in Les Soeurs fâchées, she comes close to making us understand how someone so adorable — Catherine Frot’s artistic specialty — could drive anybody over the edge.

As the eponymous heroine of Gabrielle

Huppert needs but little introduction from me. She speaks good English and sometimes appears in American films, notably Heaven’s Gate and I Heart Huckabee’s, but she excels in the detailed psycho-microdramas that are a staple of French cinema. One recent film, Nue propriété could hardly have been any smaller, a vignette about a mother and her two sons, yet she delivered a titanic performance. Her rage spilled out of the screen until we felt it, too — only to learn, tragically, that it had been misaimed from the start. While she railed against her ex-husband, her sons were lost to her.

Unlike most movie stars, she seeks out unsympathetic characters to portray, never winking at us as if to say, “Ain’t I the dickens?” — as even Bette Davis sometimes did. Perhaps only in France could she have made a career of such roles; I can’t think of any American actress, ever, and scarcely a European who’s succeeded this way. It takes guts to do what she does, and she’s physically courageous, too, as she demonstrates in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste.

In that film, she cuts herself (and I don’t think she was faking), while playing a monstrous character, yet despite all the unpleasantness we can’t take our eyes off her. We want to see how this plays out; it’s not so much that we sympathize, perhaps, as that we want her lot to improve, one way or another, for our sake as much as hers. Even when she doesn’t strip naked — though she often does — she exposes every fiber of her character’s torment. She’s been acting on screen since she was a teenager, and she knows exactly how far she can go: in this case, she doesn’t overpower the picture, but she does fill it completely. She must have a good sense of scale, because she manages to do this, in films big and small, no matter the director, with only the rarest exceptions.

With Benoît Magimel, in La Pianiste

Because she’s relatively well-known in the States, her movies are released there, usually, and I urge you to seek them out. I hesitate to say that her participation guarantees the quality of a picture, but there’s always something interesting, troubling, and meaningful in her work. Not a lot of actors about whom I can say that.

1 comment:

SammiKat said...

She is absolutely stunning. The first film of hers I saw was La Pianiste & I've been an ardent fan ever since. American TV audiences were treated to an appearance by her on Law & Order: SVU last year I believe.