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Isabelle Huppert: World’s greatest actor

The French star vaults to the top ranks with recent performances in “Elle” and “Things to Come.”

May as well just say it: Isabelle Huppert is the best screen actor working in the world today.

To support this somewhat bold contention, I present two pieces of compelling evidence, both showing in Portland theaters right now.

One, “Things to Come,” is, in outline, a fairly ordinary middlebrow drama. It centers on a French high school philosophy teacher (yes, they have those in France) whose orderly life is upended on numerous fronts. The health of her elderly mother (played by screen icon Edith Scob) is failing; she discovers that her husband her been unfaithful to her; and her career momentum stalls. We’ve seen this sort of midlife-crisis, “I Am Woman” story in the past–remember all those Jill Clayburgh movies?–but what elevates “Things to Come” is Huppert’s smooth, lived-in performance, which manages to communicate a controlled facade and a rich interior life without resorting to anything resembling acting (at least as we’re used to seeing it in Hollywood dramas).

Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie) and Roman Kolinka (Fabien) in Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME

The director of “Things to Come” is Mia Hansen Love, who based the main character on her own mother. Hansen Love, making her fifth feature, is part of a new generation of French female filmmakers who are demonstrating the wide range of stories women can contribute when allowed to infiltrate the typically male-dominated industry. And Huppert’s appearance in her movie is something of a stamp of approval, placing her in the ranks of other greats the actress has graced with her inimitable talents. 

Take Paul Verhoeven, for instance. The Dutch auteur became notorious during his 1990s Hollywood years for slick genre entertainments that indulged in and/or subverted misogyny–”Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” “Total Recall,” and especially “Showgirls.” Eventually retreating back to Europe, he re-emerges now with his first theatrical feature in a decade. “Elle” is, as you’d expect, a slick genre piece that may warrant trigger warnings for some but ultimately stands as a portrait of a woman who’s anything but a victim.

Isabelle Huppert and friend in a scene from “Elle.”

Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the chief executive of a video game company, and a strong, capable woman. We don’t know that, though, when we see her, in the movie’s opening scene, being raped in her home by a masked intruder. It’s obviously a provocative way to kick things off, especially considering the deadpan manner in which it’s filmed, with Huppert’s cat sitting and watching the attack as dispassionately as Verhoeven’s camera does. That calmness is echoed when, after the man flees, Michèle simply cleans up the mess and goes about her day.

Her imperturbability may arise in part from the fact that, as we learn, she is the daughter of a famous, currently imprisoned, mass murderer, and may have in fact been unwilling party to his crimes as a young girl decades earlier. In any case, that’s certainly one reason she decides not to go to the police but to track down her assailant on her own. Was it her estranged husband? Her seemingly harmless new neighbor? A resentful employee at the game company? It couldn’t be her ineffectual adult son, who’s trapped in a relationship with a psycho girlfriend, could it?

Every possibility is on the table, but “Elle” succeeds as far more than a simple, exploitive whodunit. It’s a role that feels tailor-made for Huppert’s all-out-of-fucks-to-give demeanor. Michèle is a woman who realized long ago that looking to anyone else, especially a man, for assistance or comfort is a fool’s errand. Which doesn’t mean she’s not above using them for her own gratification. Perversity is a frequent facet to Huppert’s characters, and “Elle” takes full advantage of her ability to go places most other actresses would shy away from.

For whatever reason, perhaps that difficult-to-watch opening scene, “Elle” did not make the cut for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award nomination shortlist. (Nine films did, from which five will be nominated on January 24th. And, no, I have no idea why they do it that way.) Huppert, however, could–or at least should–be considered a dark horse candidate for a Best Actress nomination. She did garner her first-ever Golden Globes nomination for “Elle.” Amazingly, despite being nominated for fifteen Cesar Awards (the French Oscars), she has only won once, in 1996 for Claude Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie.”

Perhaps her distant, even unapproachable, mien contributes to the hesitancy awards voters demonstrate. But it shouldn’t diminish our appreciation for the impeccable taste and astonishing rigor she’s exhibited over a career that has spanned five decades and well over a hundred roles. Here are five must-see performances from that roster.

“Valley of Love”: Having not worked together since 1980’s “Loulou,” Gerard Depardieu and Huppert team up for this remarkable drama as former spouses who come together following the suicide of their adult son. His posthumously discovered instructions lead them to Death Valley, California, where they’re forced to confront their failures as parents and people. The physical contrast between Depardieu’s massive girth and Huppert’s efficient frame is something to behold. (Available on DVD/Blu-ray and to stream via Amazon.)

“White Material” (2009): Huppert exudes strength of mind and body as the Caucasian owner of a failing coffee plantation in a civil-war-torn African nation (which goes unnamed but is clearly meant to be Zimbabwe). As rebel forces advance on her property, she tries to hold out until the impending harvest. Director Claire Denis and her star create a character and situation that are anything but, pardon the phrase, black and white. (Available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD, or streaming via subscription to the Sundance Now service.)

“The Piano Teacher” (2001): Huppert’s first collaboration with Austrian director Michael Haneke resulted in this Cannes Grand Prix-winning character study of a conservatory instructor whose repressed facade hides a taste for sado-masochism and self-mutilation. More than any other role, this is the one that established Huppert’s penchant for envelope-pushing. She would work with Haneke again on “Time of the Wolf” and “Amour.” (Unfortunately, this has been unavailable on Region 1 DVD for years, and I can’t find it available to stream anywhere, so your best shot is to check you local video rental store, if you still have one…)

“Amateur” (1994): One of Huppert’s few English-language roles (her first was in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”) was as a pornography-writing ex-nun in director Hal Hartley’s typically deadpan comedy. (This one’s also out of print on DVD and unavailable on major streaming platforms, so it could be hard to find as well.)

“Going Places” (1974): Huppert’s role, as a virginal teen deflowered by the film’s two delinquent protagonists, isn’t big. But it was the first time she worked with Depardieu, and director Bernard Blier’s scandalous, raunchy comedy remains a cult classic. (available on DVD; stream from Amazon, Vudu)