Isabelle Huppert:
The Absent One


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


Isabelle Huppert, on screen, has a very particular smile. It rarely has anything to do with opening her mouth, showing her teeth, and bellowing a laugh. It is simply the movement – sometimes, just a twitch – of her lips, straightening them out to signify a slight smile. As she gets older, these smiling lips form a wide, tight line across her face, almost as if drawn there.


This smile always accompanies some degree of distraction, an absence. Huppert seems to be momentarily pondering or remembering something else that takes her attention away from whatever is going on in the immediate situation around her. Something that removes or even drains her emotional response – the shadow of a doubt, passing across and through her eyes. The smile flickers for a second, then it is gone; the mouth returns to its normal position. We cannot read the play of emotions, sensations, thoughts and recollections happening within her.


There is a curious vacillation in the way we are tempted, as spectators, to describe this process: are we watching Huppert at this moment, or the fictive character she is playing? More than with most actors, the border between actor and role seems to evaporate swiftly – or it never existed, for her, in the first place. Concentrating mainly on her dramatic parts (as we shall do here) and lining up one film after another, it can often be difficult (indeed, almost impossible) to distinguish Huppert’s “characterisation” from one performance to the next. The same reactions, movements, gestures – such as that flatliner smile – placidly recur in unexpected permutations and combinations, no matter the fictional situation or historical period.


And yet, we never have the sense that Huppert “plays herself” in the sense that many actors do, projecting their familiar, beloved mannerisms from film to film, as we enjoy in stars (or, on a lower level of celebrity fame, “character actors”) from Marilyn Monroe and Jean-Pierre Léaud to Christopher Walken and Anna Faris. Huppert’s “self” is more mysterious, fugitive, hard to get a fix on. She so often appears, on screen, to be in a state of internal retreat or withdrawal, the dead opposite of actorly exhibitionism – and this quality, which she calls interiority, is the state to which she claims to aspire, above all other attributes of the performing craft.


Huppert, now in her mid 60s, is, in some respects, an odd and unlikely candidate for the level of stardom she has achieved. There is very little that is feel-good or sentimentally manipulative about her style of acting. Not to mention the often bleak, perverse roles (the occasional zany, such as Madame Hyde [2018], aside) that she generally selects – almost always on the basis of the director, rather than the script. From Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (1974) to Patricia Moraz’s The Indians Are Still Far Away (1977), from Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) to Marco Ferreri’s The Story of Piera (1983), from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) to Christophe Honoré’s Ma mère (2004), from Claire Denis’ White Material (2009) to Eva Ionesco’s My Little Princess (2011), from Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness (2013) to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), Huppert’s roles constitute a veritable gallery of female abjection – whether ending up in tragedy or triumph.


Unlike Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave, Huppert is not an actor who virtuosically alters her appearance, vocal tone or accent from role to role. At most, a different costume style or a change of hair colour – necessary, she says, particularly as she moves so swiftly from one project to the next, in order to “differentiate the role from oneself”. But in general, she would appear to insist on the complete opposite of traditionally chameleonic acting: she offers herself as a kind of unadorned, blank screen that can reflect and refract whatever surrounds her in any given film. Directors including Benoît Jacquot (Villa Amalia, 2009) and Rithy Panh (The Sea Wall, 2008) understand this central, almost Bressonian aspect of Huppert’s artistry perfectly, and use her accordingly. At the same time, even her most glacial performances are regularly traversed by a volcanic, hysterical energy that expresses itself in sudden manifestations of emotion. What kind of continuum can be established between these extreme poles in her acting?


Return to the shadow of her smile. It is only one of many gestures that Huppert is fond of producing in an abrupt and beguilingly discontinuous way. If she’s alarmed or besieged, she gives a short, sharp scream. If she’s waiting or thinking or tense, she licks her lips with her tongue. She will often deliver the most banal, innocuous, transitional lines (like “ooo la la!”) with unexpected emphasis and colour. She flutters her hands in “go away” gestures, impulsively massages her neck or clears hair from her eyes, blows air out of her mouth and vibrates her lips in an exaggerated vision of relief. These various expressions flare up, die away almost instantly, and then are gone.


Huppert speaks of her joy in working with details such as these, stringing them into a sequence of actions within a shot or scene. Her character, in each role, is the unstable accumulation of such discontinuous signs, active or reactive. In Maurice Pialat’s Loulou (1980), her face is a non-stop parade of often inscrutable micro-expressions, wheeling from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Stick her next to Gérard Depardieu (as Pialat does) in long-held two-shots, in a bar or in bed, and it's a carnival of unpredictable affects. (See our 2019 audiovisual essay on Pialat’s direction of actors for these examples).


Huppert is sometimes criticised as a cold, cerebral performer. One would not think this reading her interviews, which are replete with invocations of “pure feeling”, “living in the moment”, and the embodiment of “states” rather than intellectual concepts. According to her, little is discussed with the director beyond the essential logistics of a scene (where to move, at what pace, etc.). “There is no direction of actors” is among her favourite mottos. Rather, as she explains it, an actor inhabits the film – an entity that is bigger than the conscious work of cast and crew combined – and rides along with it, feeling its vibrations, sensing its needs from moment to moment. It is this holistic experience which guides her and, as she says, “the actor follows”.


This is not exactly about being absorbed into the imaginary world created by the film (which is the way that, for instance, Willem Dafoe describes his immersion into a role). For Huppert, ever-conscious of the camera and the surrounding mise en scène, it is more a matter of responding to a certain regard defined by that camera, and to the particular mood, viewpoint and purpose of the film-project – even when these aspects are not verbally articulated completely or at all, by the director or writer or anyone else involved.


The film and theatre director Werner Schroeter (1945-2010), who included Huppert in half a dozen of his projects, praised her as an actor who does not need “psychological humbug” explanations, and does not perform in a psychological manner: she appreciated (much to his taste) that acting is, above all, work – physical work that demands an intense concentration of energy. (In his remarkable 1990 film Malina, for instance, Huppert willingly spent long hours on the set amidst real flames.) Huppert herself echoes this when she speaks of generally preferring to play a “series of poses”, rather than a conventionally three-dimensional character.


These accounts do not necessarily always tally with our experience of the films that result from such creative processes: isn’t Elle, for instance, an especially complex exploration of a particular woman’s very unique psychology and experience? Yet, even in this case, Huppert’s own take is intriguing. While claiming that she and Verhoeven did not much discuss her prior roles for Claude Chabrol in films including Story of Women (1988), Madame Bovary (1991) and Comedy of Power (2006), she notes something particularly “Chabrolian” about the main character in Elle: “Her past is a hypothesis; others around her run about offering exact explanations for her behaviour. That’s how Chabrol worked, too: he gave us social hypotheses, a family hypothesis, a professional hypothesis – to the point where we don’t grasp at all what makes up this character”. As frequently with Huppert’s roles, this one in Elle is “difficult to reduce”.


Looking at a group of films along the thread of an actor who is common to all of them brings a different, refreshing slant to the auteurist analysis of cinema. This is not to say that an actor, even one with such star power as Huppert, sets the principal, artistic intention of a film over and above the director – although it is a well-documented fact that producer-actors such as Tom Cruise have enormous control over the final product, and Huppert herself initiated the White Material project. Nonetheless, we can grasp a different constellation of meanings and emotions across a diversity of films if we agree to experimentally treat the main actor as also the main auteur. This is especially so with the passage of years and decades: in Huppert’s case, metamorphosing (for example) from rebellious daughter roles in the 1970s to ambiguously amoral mothers today. (Elle, with its four generations of a family, is fascinating in this regard, and Verhoeven – unlike most filmmakers – does not cheat in his age-casting: Judith Magre, playing Huppert’s mother, is 90!)


There is one aspect of Huppert’s progression, in this regard, that is particularly striking. First, let’s note that Huppert has always looked younger than her biological age, and has taken advantage of this fact not only in the practical way that any lucky actor would (in the 1970s, she was still able to play teenagers while already in her mid 20s, and in the 1980s could easily incarnate a character at the different decades of a “historic chronicle” like Coup de foudre, 1983), but also in order to explore a rich range of uncanny, sometimes disquieting effects. As the postal worker in Chabrol’s The Ceremony (1995), Huppert projects girlishness even when she is killing people with a shotgun; and in My Little Princess, where she plays a lightly fictionalised version of the controversial art-photographer Irina Ionesco, her lack of conventionally maternal attributes makes her seem like a sister or friend to the character of the young daughter.


Moreover, the indeterminability or flexibility of Huppert’s seeming on-screen age allows her to richly inhabit scenarios where, as an adult, she deals with aged parents (as in her films with Haneke) – forever taking the child position, in that sense – and/or where her sexuality, however perverse, plays a vital and central part in the drama (as in The Piano Teacher, Ma mère or Elle). The entirety of Huppert’s screen career, in other words, can be seen as a multi-faceted probe, from every conceivable angle, of what it means for an individual to enter – or refuse or fail to enter – the symbolic order of society, with its set, predetermined roles of age, class, gender, position in a family structure.


Still, if there is an evolutionary arc that survives such indeterminacy and age-shifting in Huppert’s career to date, it is this: from often playing the melancholic, alienated or sullen outsider in her early, youthful roles – most emblematically in the sad love story The Lacemaker (1977) and in Chabrol’s recreation of Violette Nozière (1978), a teenage “free spirit” of the 1930s who murdered her father – she eventually traversed the various social barriers to be installed as the “perfect bourgeois” in Chabrol’s later films, François Ozon’s 8 Women (2002), The Piano Teacher, and many others. This makes for a fascinating comparison between eras, and between types of cinematic stories. In her roles for Godard in Sauve qui peut and Passion (1982), for example, Huppert is the struggling worker-girl: enduring routine sexual humiliations as a prostitute in the former, literally stuttering to make her point to her lover-boss in the latter. Lacking any external power, her characters of this period need to withdraw in order to carve out for themselves some private space for reflecting, dreaming, desiring. As certified members of the bourgeoisie, however, her later incarnations become masters of often sinister control through subtle manipulation and stage-managing.


This returns us to the interiority so characteristic of Huppert’s art as an actor. She has often described the task of acting as the quest to find an “interior space” within the general frame of the surrounding mise en scène, whether theatrical or cinematic. She seeks to give her characters, through this process, not only a buffer of privacy, but also a vast zone of secrecy, of enigma. These secrets can be dreamy (as they were for the younger Huppert roles), or malicious (in her high bourgeois mode), or both at once. Hence the perversity factor very often at play in her performances: this interior escape, a necessary flight from harsh reality, gets somehow twisted up behind her inscrutable façade, and relaunches itself in strategies, schemes or impulsive acts of either other-directed aggression or self-mutilation (such as we see in Malina or The Piano Teacher).


Huppert was once asked about her ability to produce such wrenching tears on screen. She almost shrugs off the question: “We all have a deep well of sadness and despair in us. It’s not that hard to find”. The interviewer persists: but how, technically, can you make herself cry? “I can do it at any moment. It’s not complicated. If you ask a pianist to play a Chopin sonata, he plays it. If you ask a dancer to produce a step, she does it. There’s no masochism involved; it’s pure pleasure”. Then she gives the reflection a philosophical spin: “There’s no suffering in this suffering … To act is a necessity; and it’s easy for me to do. I’m not one of those who complain that a particular role was ‘difficult’ … I stick with a certain nonchalance, which can border at times on indifference”.


From tears to indifference – and the space between them is where Isabelle Huppert finds her freedom, her autonomy. Why? Because, as she asserts: “I value lightness above all else”.


All quotations from Huppert are translated from interviews in two issues of Cahiers du cinéma: the special “Autoportrait(s)” issue that she guest-edited in March 1994 (no. 477); and Stéphane Delorme’s “Jouer”, recorded in Cannes for no. 723 (June 2016). We recommend reading our text in tandem with viewing our 2017 audiovisual essay “I Furrow My Own Film Inside Those I Pass Through”: Isabelle Huppert – the two elements are combined in our lecture-performance version.


© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin February 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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