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The Second-Act Stardom of Isabelle Huppert

With the release of ‘Greta,’ we take a close look at the stellar, deranged, and startling filmography of one of the world’s greatest actresses

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of my most enjoyable cinema viewing experiences of last year wasn’t exactly of the transcendental kind. Sitting in Toronto in a multiplex for a Toronto International Film Festival press screening, I didn’t discover a new cinematic language or witness the emergence of a young, exciting talent. It was all about a familiar face. But Neil Jordan’s latest thriller, Greta, starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert as unlikely friends whose relationship soon turns unhealthy, made me jump in fright and laugh uproariously throughout its airtight 98-minute runtime—and had me once again marveling at the new kind of international stardom that Huppert has reached in the past few years.

As the titular character, Huppert plays a camp parody of her most iconic roles. The lonely, elderly pianist Greta, who is in fact much less innocent than she seems, echoes the protagonist of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher; her unreadable, always resting face could be that of the uncertain nun in Hal Hartley’s Amateur; and her sadistic, violent ways are unmistakably consonant with Huppert’s now iconic, Oscar-nominated turn in Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 film Elle. While Greta isn’t as masterful as those films—the ridiculous humor in this Single White Female–type film clearly isn’t always strictly intentional—it is nevertheless a deeply pleasurable watch for fans of Huppert and an interesting document of the reappropriation of this French legend’s very peculiar persona by mainstream American directors in the 21st century. Looking back at her 40-plus-year career, however, it seems only fair that such a unique talent, now aged 65, should intrigue Hollywood once again.

Isabelle Huppert as Greta in ‘Greta’
Focus Features

From her very first film appearances in France, Isabelle Huppert established herself as a bold actress, willing to go to taboo places with unusual calm and confidence. A few TV movies were followed by a minor role, at 20, in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1974 explicit exploration of female sexuality, Glissements Progressifs du Plaisir. That same year, and more famously, Huppert played a bored good girl craving adventures in Bertrand Blier’s thoroughly problematic cult comedy film Les Valseuses, about two young men traveling around France to shoplift, steal cars, and have more or less consensual sexual encounters with women. Huppert’s teenager Jacqueline, in the middle of a family picnic, decides to elope with the strangers who stole her parents’ car and loses her virginity with all three of them. Acting alongside the great Miou-Miou, Patrick Dewaere, and a certain Gérard Depardieu, Huppert already showed a degree of comfort, maturity, and playfulness that exposed the power dynamics at the basis of sexual relationships. Jacqueline may be giving herself to strangers, but it is her decision to do so and she has full agency in the experience.

The role that first put Huppert on the international map wasn’t so adventurous. She was nominated for a César and won a BAFTA award for her turn in Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker (1977), playing a shy, cute but unremarkable young woman unable to change for the man she loves. Huppert made Pomme’s repression of emotions compelling to the audience even as it was frustrating to her lover. This ability to play the extreme of virginal purity, contrasting her sexual appetite in Les Valseuses, pointed at the particular aspect of life that the actress would become an expert explorer of in French cinema—namely, female sexuality and its unavoidable connection to power struggles.

The great French director Claude Chabrol offered Huppert many opportunities to challenge the expectations placed upon women by (French) society, with films that employed both her highly naturalistic and internal acting style, and her steely beauty. “I play states of mind,” she recently told The Independent. “[C]haracter is a perception for whoever sees the film but not for myself. I don’t play a character. I just play an encounter between me and certain states of mind.” In both Violette Nozière (1978) and Une Affaire de Femmes (1988), Huppert’s cold attitude translates a strength of character in the face of the same sexual exploitation, presented in each film under a different guise. Violette rebels against her claustrophobic domestic life, while Marie in Une Affaire withholds her sexuality in order to avoid pregnancy and the constraints of motherhood, all the while practicing illegal abortions for other women. The same desire for independence—the same state of mind—guides the two women, and Huppert, with her natural collectedness, can portray them both just as convincingly because the quiet confidence of her characters is, first, her own. She can play virginal without being herself a saint, or voluptuousness despite not being traditionally sexy, because she trusts that her approach to acting allows her to portray all kinds of people.

Huppert’s ease with both extremes of sexual expression led her to reunite with Depardieu in Loulou, Maurice Pialat’s 1980 masterpiece about a young wife, Nelly, beginning an unclear and frivolous relationship with the titular petty criminal. Pialat’s cinema was characterized by unconventionality and heartbreak (his 1972 semi-autobiographical tough watch We Won’t Grow Old Together couldn’t have had a more apt title) and it only makes sense that the already-transgressive Huppert would be a part of it. The dynamic she has with Depardieu is one of pure pleasure, with neither of their characters caring for the rules of behavior that couples are meant to obey, nor for the codes of conduct in the clubs and bars they visit. With Loulou, Nelly is allowed to, in essence, act like a man and redefines female sexuality in a more egalitarian fashion. When life inevitably catches up to them, Nelly and Loulou remain a team, at least for a while, knowing they can be free and alone together. Nelly’s lust for life unmistakably recalls that of Madame Bovary, the epitome of female dissatisfaction, whom Huppert portrayed in 1991, again for Chabrol. With her ability to stay in the uncomfortable space between sexual freedom and repression, Huppert gave such liminal characters a face. Huppert, in concert with these filmmakers, became a feminist axiom in the typically misogynistic 1980s.

It was only a matter of time until Huppert’s affinity for sexually unconventional characters would catch the eye of foreign directors, in particular in Hollywood. The same year as Loulou, she appeared in Michael Cimino’s infamously difficult production Heaven’s Gate, playing Ella Watson, a Quebecois brothel owner. At some point, Ella is raped by and avenged by the film’s protagonists, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), her two love interests. But Ella also kills men herself, displays her body freely, and rides a carriage with a restlessness not typically granted to women: she wields a strong hand as a madam while overcoming her own abuse and trauma. Cimino fought for Huppert to be cast in the part, and it was one thing he was right to be stubborn about. Even if it is in more conventional and obvious terms (meet the New Hollywood, same as the old Hollywood), Huppert here again defies traditional definitions of femininity and female sexuality.

After the disastrous reception of Heaven’s Gate, which essentially brought the New Hollywood to an end by scaring off producers from working with uncompromising auteurs, Huppert didn’t work in America again until Curtis Hanson’s erotic thriller The Bedroom Window (playing a French mistress) and more interestingly in Hartley’s 1994 indie classic, Amateur. Just as its title is a French word that has passed into English use, Huppert here plays Isabelle, her persona having gained more definition by the mid-’90s and ready to travel. The fictional Isabelle is a French nun trying to write a pornographic movie because the Virgin Mary told her that she should pursue her calling as a nymphomaniac—a sexually uncertain woman, torn between chastity and the erotic in an absurdly literal way. The low-budget Amateur isn’t as commercial as Heaven’s Gate at least aimed to be; its narrative includes a man with amnesia who may have been a pimp, and the woman he can’t remember having exploited all her life. Inspired by the French New Wave, Hartley’s film has a wild rhythm, bouncing off strange situations and blunt conversations through the streets of New York. As always in his films, the cast is asked to act in a detached, almost Bressonian way, far from the heightened emotional performances found in typical Hollywood fare—but Huppert, whose style has always been realistic but minimal, barely has to change her approach to reach this level of neutrality. Her performance, while appropriately stilted and odd, also feels lived in and true. When she cries at the film’s climax, she recalls Jean Seberg at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, at once chilly and human.

Although Huppert started working with auteurs early on, with Chabrol remaining her most frequent collaborator, the early 2000s following Amateur truly marked her transformation into an auteur in her own right, and on both the national and the international scenes. Her image was now a clear signifier of a certain French class mixed with female sexual boldness, and in every film she was cast in, she brought with her these complex, endlessly fascinating dilemmas between strength and vulnerability, outward calm and inner turmoil, outrageousness and class. The way her symbolic value was used, however, varied from continent to continent.

Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher fully tapped into Huppert’s sexually ambiguous screen presence. Her protagonist Erika is tough on her young students, on her demanding mother who she still lives with and cares for, and on herself, in a masochistic and self-harming way. Raised to feel ashamed of her needs and desires, she is secretive and doesn’t know how to receive the affection that the young and handsome Walter (Benoît Magimel) offers her. The scene of his audition to enter the school is a masterclass in classic Huppert acting: She listens to the virtuoso play his instrument in almost complete stillness, but a quiet discomfort is visible in the way her hands shuffle, her eyes can’t stay away from him, and her mouth forms a Mona Lisa smile. She doesn’t know how to handle the pleasure she is feeling, and Haneke, not known at that point as an actor’s director, manages to make her seem at once cold and dry, and unsettled by overwhelming positive feelings. The sex she wants to have with Walter is itself brutal, and he is disgusted by how she wishes to dehumanize both of them—he may not be much kinder than her, after all. In the film’s final moments, Erika takes a knife to her heart with the same composure she had when playing Schubert, then walks off frame, hiding her pain from everyone yet again. Huppert never betrays Erika’s shyness, but neither does she deny her some humanity, her thousand-yard stare speaking to both Erika’s humility and her suffering. Her performance was hailed as a landmark by critics in Europe and the U.S.

The next year, French auteur François Ozon employed Huppert’s femininity in a different tone, but to a similar effect, in his star-studded comedy-musical 8 Women, about a family murder mystery. As Augustine, Huppert is again sexually repressed, this time essaying a bitter spinster who finds refuge in mushy romantic novels. She plays the piano in one of the film’s most delightful musical segments, like in The Piano Teacher, and singing Françoise Hardy’s “Message Personnel,” her lovelorn words could have been Erika’s:

Tous ces mots qui font peur quand ils ne font pas rire / All these words that frighten when they don’t make you laugh

Qui sont dans trop de films, de chansons et de livres / That are in too many films, songs and books

Je voudrais vous les dire / I would like to tell them to you

Et je voudrais les vivre / And I would like to live them

Je ne le ferai pas / I won’t do it

Je veux, je ne peux pas / I want, I can’t

When she rises up to sing the chorus, Augustine translates her sorrow through an artful arm choreography, looking into the camera as tears slowly fill her eyes. Huppert releases pain in the only way she knows how: through a delicate and composed manner, the discreet knife through her chest here replaced by a performance that instead punctures the film’s narrative.

Huppert has appeared in many more European art house films in the past 20 years, exploring the female psyche for a few women directors in especially interesting ways. She was a fictional surrogate for Claire Denis in her 2009 film White Material, playing a French woman defending her crops on the African territory that isn’t truly hers. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (2016), she stood in for the director’s own mother, a philosopher going through an existential crisis. Female directors seem to relate to Huppert’s persona as a complicated woman, recognizing in her contradictions the richness of their own experiences, or of the women closest to them.

Male auteurs, meanwhile, have increasingly employed Huppert’s complex relationship to femininity as an opportunity to explore the extremes of modern life in more abstract, and variously successful, ways. David O. Russell’s 2004 screwball comedy I Heart Huckabees is a challenge to sit through, which perhaps explains why Huppert’s anarchism is so irresistible when she finally shows up as the nihilist thinker Caterine Vauban—the most extreme philosopher in a movie that’s all about mind-set. But it is also her performance as a rather literal femme fatale that makes Huppert so much more compelling than Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s “existential detectives:” Huppert knows her character through and through and is used to hiding perversity behind a mask of calm intellect. She used the same set of skills when she appeared in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2010, playing an anthropologist suspected of framing her ex-husband for her son’s kidnapping. But when she is revealed to have been framed herself, she loses her temper and threatens the officers—including none other than Sharon Stone, who could perhaps be called the American Huppert for her many strong, independent, and sexy characters. The dramatic standards of U.S. mainstream television require Huppert’s character in SVU to end up institutionalized; female dissatisfaction comes out in aggression and has to be contained by force. In Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s underrated American production Louder Than Bombs, by contrast, Huppert’s steeliness hides the mystery of her intense pain. Playing a war photographer called Isabelle, she is again a sort of anthropologist, and it is telling that Huppert has so often played women who at once study people, and are to be studied. In her ambiguity lie all the questions of the female experience and of life at large, but also, for those willing to look, perhaps all the answers too.

The director who recently has best employed the Huppert mystery to explore some big life questions is—unsurprisingly, in retrospect—the wildest of them all, and one who has experienced both the American and the European film industries (and also worked with Sharon Stone!). Huppert received her first, long-delayed, much-deserved Oscar nomination for Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 French thriller Elle, in which she tackled once again the taboos surrounding female sexuality and the place that women occupy in Western society. Her character Michèle is a successful, divorced businesswoman, just starting out in the video game industry. One day, she is raped by a stranger in her own house. As she looks for the culprit’s identity and begins a strange relationship with him, Michèle becomes an extreme case of both female exploitation and affirmation: the “Elle” of the title represents the enigma of women’s experience in the 21st century, and Michèle tries to reconcile its contradictions.

Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, and Kris Kristofferson in ‘Heaven’s Gate’
United Artists

Operating in a realistic register and delivering a typically minimalist performance, Huppert grounds the film’s surreal developments and helps to support Verhoeven’s characteristically conceptual approach to the material. When she casually cleans up the broken glass that the assailant left behind, Michèle scolds her cat for just sitting there during the attack; the effect is funny and uncomfortable, and feels simultaneously true to life and absurd. Michèle has been strong for so long, with the whole world teaching her to expect and accept that men will disrespect her, so why would she collapse now? As she looks for her attacker, she seems to be running toward more harm, but in Verhoeven’s vision, this is only an extreme version of what women have to go through every day. It will take the film’s entire runtime for Michèle to finally see the world in all its ugliness, put an end to her abuse by men, and find refuge with a trusty female friend. With Elle, Huppert has come the closest yet to deconstructing the maddeningly paradoxical female condition, revealing with a hefty dose of dark humor the untenability of the demands placed on women still today.

“Once you start exploring these kinds of things, of course, it doesn’t go without very dark edges, and a lot of complexity. Although, I always try to put a little bit of humor in it. It makes the whole thing more bearable, I think,” Huppert explained recently. In the past few years, since Elle gave her a new and fresher place in the American consciousness, Huppert’s comedic aptitude seems to have resurfaced. Her Oscar campaign brought her to Instagram, where her frequent stylish posts keep delighting many millennials who have rightly and quickly made her a more modern icon of French class and fierceness; in brief, she is now a camp idol. But Huppert is also the exception in an industry that typically dismisses older actresses, and a representative of the supposed greater courage of European cinema, compared with Hollywood—she remains a symbol of authenticity à la française.

Her role in Greta seems to be, therefore, simply a matter of course. European, elderly, chic, and sadistic, Greta is evil in a fun way—strong and dangerous, and too grotesque to be played by Meryl Streep. When she hits the clumsy fingers of the young woman who she forces to play the piano for her, Huppert essentially parodies herself but remains truthful. Only someone as playful as Huppert, with such a stellar, deranged, and startling filmography, could interpret such a silly and scary character with both grace and humor, commitment and ease. Only a pianist with so much experience at the keys can play the same notes in new arrangements with such confidence, humility, and wit.