In praise of Isabelle Huppert
Isabelle Huppert is a French actress who was born in Paris in 1953. She is versatile and prolific, acting in over 120 films so far, with her first feature film being released in 1972.
She is renowned for her ability to excel in a huge range of roles. From thrillers to comedies, to voicing animations. Not shying away from any subject, she has played a pornography-writing nun, a murderer, a judge, a farmer and a fox amongst dozens of others.
Huppert has received over 150 nominations and won almost 100 awards so far. She has been nominated for the Cesar awards 16 times.
In 2008 she played Augustine in Francois Ozon’s hilarious musical murder mystery “8 Women” (you can read the full review here). Here she played a birdlike woman with a hairstyle as uptight as her personality, both of which fall throughout the film as she shifts from cartoonish librarian to Jessica Rabbit.
However, her most critically acclaimed film is “Elle” (2017), directed by Paul Verhoeven, for which she earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win amongst dozens of other nods. Here she played Michèle, the CEO of a video game company who is sexually assaulted in her own home.
She doesn’t react the way one would expect, cleaning up the room and being incredibly unemotional when she eventually tells people what happened. She attempts to find the identity of her attacker but there’s a twist in the tail once she succeeds.
“Elle” is an incredibly nuanced and ambiguous film that could only work with the most skilled of lead actresses. With a full grasp of the complicated character, Huppert has extraordinary control over every facial expression and minute gesture.
She is also very physical in the role which includes a number of big fights with a man much bigger than her. She fully commits to some horrific rape scenes in order to deliver the full impact. But she also masters a somewhat cold emotional response to the event.
This cold control is what makes the film such a difficult and ambiguous watch. Did she want the attacker to return? Was she entirely emotionally unaffected, or is she just reacting in a way we don’t expect?
Some scenes walk a tightrope between roleplay and assault. But there is never a suggestion that women, in general, enjoy sexual assault roleplay. So often in films, we see a woman’s resistance to unwanted advances or attack melt into consent. But Verhoeven doesn’t employ the male gaze in order to undermine victims here, it’s all about Michèle’s experience and her response.
Coupled with Huppert’s deeply complex performance, these ambiguous assault scenes raise more questions about the character of Michèle herself than make a universal statement about women and sex.
Throughout the film, she is very much in control of almost every situation. This powers her sex-positive approach to life as well as her assertive CEO position. She is unafraid to stand up to anyone and cash in on masculine stereotypes to sell her product.
As well as trauma and sexual violence, the film also integrates grief and forgiveness. Michèle’s father was imprisoned years ago for a series of horrific murders and this haunts her daily.
She also has an antagonistic relationship with her mother and this merges with Michèle’s seemingly cold persona when it comes to the scattering, or dumping, of her ashes. But she’s not hateful, she’s a deeply complicated person. She has been the victim of some very traumatic events through her life and works in an industry that is hardly supportive of women.
She wrestles with the decision whether to go and see her father and develops as a character in some profound ways.
Two more films starting Huppert are due to be released soon. In “La Daronne” she plays a police translator who gets involved in drug dealing in what looks to be an incredibly exciting film by Jean-Paul Salomé.
The synopsis for “Luz” has not been released at the time of writing but it is directed by Flora Lau who was also the producer in the stunning and shocking “Monos” (2019).
I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of Huppert’s work, both her upcoming performances and digging through her extensive back catalogue of work.
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Hi, I'm Caz. I live in Edinburgh and I watch a lot of films. My reviews focus mainly on women in film - female directors or how women are represented on screen.