Friday, December 27, 2002

Isabelle Huppert tribute from December 2002

A few months ago, when thinking about my yearly movie awards, the notion came to me that every year it seems that there is a figure somewhere within the filmmaking vocation who dominates my memory of that year. Sure, I hand out awards for great performances and noteworthy technical achievements, but what about someone whose greatness exceeds one specific award, someone whose contributions to cinema have achieved a breadth that transcends one single film?

So, going from this idea, I came up with the concept of the Cinematic Figure of the Year. Sort of my Most Valuable Player award. Like in professional basketball, my individual awards for acting, directing, writing, etc. might be like the honors for top scorer, best defensive player, and the like, but this award is for the person who rises above the rest by combining all the talents at his or her disposal.

Of course, sometimes one performance can be enough. Consider Daniel Day-Lewis, who hadn’t acted in five years only to return in Gangs of New York, giving a thundering performance by bringing one of cinema’s most epic and indelible villains to life. Or Jack Nicholson, who long ago seemed to have lapsed into self-parody, but whose turn in About Schmidt was just as indelible as Day-Lewis’, in a quieter way.

Then there are those did wonderful work this year in more than one film. The first name that springs to mind is Julianne Moore, who took her character in Far From Heaven and made her sing, with all the stylized grace of an old-Hollywood icon. Couple that turn with her sad-eyed performance (in an underwritten role) in The Hours, and she’s had a pretty darn memorable year. Another multiple threat was that dependable character actor Brian Cox, as a foul-mouthed screenwriting guru in Adaptation, Edward Norton’s recovering-alcoholic and self-blaming father in 25th Hour, and an absent presence in Red Dragon, a kind of symbol to show how far the Hannibal Lecter saga has fallen.

But why must it be an actor? Charlie Kaufman’s year was pretty damn good. His screenplay of Human Nature was clever, even while being undermined by cutesy direction, and Adaptation was even more bracingly original. Maybe Hayao Miyazaki deserved this award, on the basis of his Spirited Away, easily the year’s best animated film. A case could be made for Roy Andersson, the Swedish director of Songs From the Second Floor whose 25 year hiatus from films puts even Day-Lewis’ exile to shame, and who came back equally strongly.

Ultimately though, my choice came down to two actresses, both wonderful, both of whom gave more than one excellent performance this past year. First, let it be said that Meryl Streep is second to none as far as talent and esteem are concerned, as she proved in 2002 with The Hours, her best dramatic turn since The Bridges of Madison County, and Adaptation, which afforded her the opportunity to give a performance that felt completely new. As Susan Orlean, Streep was funnier, looser, and sexier than she’s been in a long, long time, and in light of such wonderful work in both films I was tempted to choose her.

However, when it came down to selecting the one person who I believe dominated my cinematic appreciation over the past twelve months, how was I to choose anyone but Isabelle Huppert? Due to the xenophobic American distribution system, her (count ‘em) three great performances in 2002 weren’t as widely seen as they should have been, but for me, and anyone else who saw her in The Piano Teacher, 8 Women, and Merci Pour le Chocolat, she was brilliance incarnate.

Of course, I’ve been aware of her brilliance for years, as has anyone who pays attention to French cinema. Huppert has been one of the screen’s most brilliant performers for a long time, and certainly one of the most inimitable, in films such as La Cérémonie, The School of Flesh, Violette, and many others. There are certain hallmarks of a Huppert performance (her enigmatic, unreadable facial expression; her buried and often dangerous passion), but it would be a mistake to call her range limited. On the contrary, few actresses are capable of such varied work, which can be attributed to the skill with which she uses the tools at her disposal. Like a skilled carpenter can build so many different kinds of houses with a hammer, nails, and wood, so Huppert can use her poker face and her buried well of emotions to give the world not only her nasty piece of work in La Cérémonie but also the vulnerability of Entre Nous.

The Piano Teacher made for perhaps the most daunting challenge of her career. So many films paint the motivations of their protagonists using broad strokes, so that they’re apparent to everyone in the audience, but director Michael Haneke, working from Elfriede Jelinek’s book, presents Huppert’s character, Erika Kohut, as an enigma. At the beginning of the film, Erika is cold and dispassionate about most of the things in her life. Her music, to which she has devoted her life, seems more an annoyance than anything else. She berates and insults her students, telling them flat-out how untalented they are, how they need to be serious about studying music. Does she really feel this way, or is this simply her way of asserting control over them?

Erika’s relationship with her mother (played by Annie Girardot) is no less mysterious. If Erika is stand-offish with her students, she is angry and antagonistic with Mother. One day, when Erika comes home with a new dress, she tries to hide from Mother, but Mother sees it, takes it from her and rips it. Erika, enraged, grabs her mother, ripping out some of her hair. What led to such a rage? Is it Erika’s submerged passion surfacing as a result of this loss of control, or has Mother so dominated Erika’s life that the only thing she can muster up any real feeling about is Mother? Perhaps the fact that Erika shares a bed with her mother can help us answer the question, but perhaps not.

One day, at a party, Erika meets Walter (Benoit Magimel). He is an engineering student who also plays the piano. They talk, and he is intrigued by her. He decides to audition at the music school where Erika teaches, and eventually becomes her student. She knows he’s talented, but doubts his seriousness. Regardless, that doesn’t stop her from pursuing him as a lover. We see why she might appeal to him- it’s not uncommon for a man to desire an icy woman, hoping she might warm under his gaze. Her reasons for pursuing him are trickier. At the beginning, she clearly dominates him, by controlling him sexually in a public restroom and then denying him release. But later, when she gives him a letter delineating the ways in which she wants her to dominate him, he recoils, disgusted, and we as audience members wonder whether or not she isn’t dominating him just as much this way. Throughout their time together, she is always testing him, first musically (as when she takes him to task for insulting Bruckner), then sexually. Does she really love Walter, but doesn’t know any other way to show it? Is she even capable of love? Does she merely want someone she can control the way Mother controls her? Or is it even more complicated than that- given her mother’s advanced age, is Erika looking for someone to take her place?

We never find out the answers, and the film certainly never tells us. But Huppert has figured out her take on the character, even if she isn’t sharing. She sees the performance in small, exact gestures, from the confident way she strides into a pornography shop to the casualness with which she reaches under her bed for a shoebox full of sex toys, hidden next to a pile of fashion magazines. In both instances, her matter-of-factness is disarming, but we never find out if she really is confident or if it’s simply a mechanism she uses to catch people off-guard. There are so many more questions this film makes me ask myself, but to try to answer such questions is beside the point. It’s a testament to the character, and to the skill and depth of Huppert’s performance, that there are so many questions to ask, and that these questions are more intriguing than any answer could be.

Merci Pour le Chocolat is merely Huppert’s most recent film directed by Claude Chabrol, with whom she’s worked a number of times in the past quarter-century. In this one, Huppert plays a Swiss chocolatier who may have killed her current husband’s previous wife. She is in the background for much of the film, which seems to focus on a girl (played by Anna Mouglalis) who may have been switched at birth with Huppert’s husband’s son. However, Huppert dominates my memory of the film, not only with her usual cold demeanor but also in the off-putting way she has about her while attempting to be ingratiating. What feels new about this performance is that aspect of it, in which she’s never more chilling than when being sincere.

The film also affords Huppert a final confession scene in which she gets to deliver a quintessential Isabelle Huppert line of dialogue: “Instead of loving people, I say ‘I love you’, and they believe me.” This line provides a key to the essential mystery of Isabelle Huppert, which is that you can never be sure where her characters stand on anything. A smile is somehow less than happy, tears may or may not be sincere, and what she says and what she means don’t necessarily jive. This is, I think, what makes her so fascinating onscreen.

After such intense portrayals, it’s tempting to view her turn in 8 Women as a mere romp, but that would be underestimating her (and anyone who knows Isabelle Huppert as an actress knows that underestimating her will only lead to trouble). In François Ozon’s wonderful ensemble comedy/whodunit/musical concoction, Huppert is first among equals as the spinster Augustine, younger sister of woman-of-the-house Gaby (Catherine Deneuve, regally elegant). She pulls out all the stops in her performance, turning all her knobs up to 11 as she gossips, spews out accusations, throws tantrums, and does all she can to hog attention, as younger sisters are so apt to do. In the wrong hands, the performance could’ve been a disaster, shrill and tiresome, but Huppert never steps falsely or tentatively, throwing herself into the role with an almost frightening conviction. She nails the role by virtue of going out of her way to sell it.

One of the things she gets exactly right is Augustine’s antagonistic nature. Older sister Gaby has snagged a rich husband and moved her mother (Danielle Darrieux) and sister into her home, but while Gaby may have not only economic and social but also physical superiority (“I’m beautiful and rich, she’s ugly and poor”, Gaby says at one point), Augustine makes it a point to assert her moral superiority. She is always the first to make accusations, and apt to fly into a rage when accused herself, at one point smashing one of Gaby’s vases after being accused of murder. She antagonizes everyone else in the house, casting a particularly critical eye on Gaby’s younger daughter Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), who is spunky and tomboyish and doesn’t fit the younger-sister mold in the way Augustine would prefer her to. Feeling overlooked by those around her, she acts out with attention-getting tactics, such as a heart condition which may or not be imagined, and fits of sobbing.

And yet, as is so often the case in an Isabelle Huppert performance, there’s also a more vulnerable side. The one scene where this is put on display is in her musical number (all the stars of 8 Women get one), in which she sings of loving someone she can’t tell about her feelings. Sitting at the piano, speaking words of love, her voice becomes softer, more mellow, and then she begins to sing. Much of her song takes place with her face in close-up, which enables the audience to actually see the tears gradually welling up in her eyes (contrasted with her deliberately phony tantrum-sobbing elsewhere). When finally the tears fall from her eyes and down her cheeks, it’s a wonderful and privileged moment, as though she’s always had these feelings and has been waiting for the music to draw them out of her. This image lingers in the mind throughout the film, coloring the scenes where she has seemingly reverted back to her old frantic self, causing the audience to nod with the recognition that, yes, we know that there’s more to her than this.

What I think ultimately makes Isabelle Huppert such an asset to the cinema is two important factors: ballsiness and a sheer lack of laziness. The first factor is readily apparent in the roles she chooses, which are often sexually provocative and sometimes quite bizarre, but regardless of the nature of the role she throws herself into it fully, finding the character from within. Likewise, she isn’t afraid of characters who aren’t likable, which may hold her back from being a big box-office draw but also makes her a more interesting actress in that she can allow herself to be more complex and human.

The lack of laziness is even more rare, I think, but just as important. What I mean when I say that she isn’t lazy isn’t just that she puts a great deal of effort and energy into a performance- lots of actors do that- but that she goes out of her way to make each performance unique, not just in the small details but also the underpinnings, the questions audience members ask themselves about the character when the film is over. For all their seeming similarity in the broad outlines, Huppert’s three great performances in 2002 are ultimately very different and original, as is her recent supporting role in Les Destinées Sentimentales, in which takes a role with perhaps fifteen minutes of screen time, and instead of coasting as many actors would she creates a fully-functioning and well-seen character.

Among all the wonderful actors and actresses that are currently working, no name is a greater guarantee that I’ll be intrigued by a film than Isabelle Huppert’s. Her unique skill ensures that she will be able to shine a light into unexplored corners of her characters, even in films that wouldn’t seem to have a place for this. Most of the time, she plays the antagonist to the more beautiful women onscreen, even though she herself is quite beautiful, but I think that’s another thing that makes her interesting. She has a real-world beauty that doesn’t quite stack up against big-star glamour, which causes her to be underestimated. And as I said before, it’s not a good idea to underestimate Isabelle Huppert. I’m only hoping more people will see her great performances, not only from 2002 but from her entire career, as well as all the great ones to come, so that she’ll get all the credit she deserves for being a peerless talent.

No comments: