“The Greeks already understood that there was more interest in portraying an unusual character than a usual character – that is the purpose of films and theatre.” — Isabelle Huppert

It’s her birthday today.

Nobody like her. She’s almost in her own category. Her work is mysterious. It feels like she gives the wheel over totally to her subconscious. You never feel the puppet-strings of the actress. She never even seems to be “giving a performance”. It’s something ELSE, whatever it is she is doing. She can go deep – as deep as the Mariana Trench – but she can also present the surface – an equally important skill. Not every performance requires in-depth backstory. For example: La Ceremonie, the chilling film by Claude Chabrol, which is my favorite Chabrol, and one of Huppert’s best – most eerie performances. (She is often VERY eerie.). In La Ceremonie, she is all surface. And this is by design. Jeanne is shallow. The way psychopaths are shallow. She is what she seems to be. A perky mischievous young woman. Free-spirited and impulsive. Fun. Huppert doesn’t add anything to it.

Same with Sandrine Bonnaire, her extraordinary co-star. She is what she seems to be, too, a submissive easily-flattered lonely young woman, a bit dazzled by her new friend, pleased to have someone so glamorous and fun be interested in her. The two meet, and then flit along on the surface, having coffee, watching television, talking about nothing (again: seemingly: when you watch it again, you can practically HEAR the subterranean level of inchoate communication going on). Nothing seems to be happening, for most of it. You pick up on undercurrents, but nothing comes to the surface. Nothing is verbalized.

There isn’t even a conversation about deeper subjects, their resentments, their feelings of being stuck or wanting more, all the things you FEEL but they never say. They don’t say ANYthing and the terrifying final scene emerges almost like it’s a whim. It could not be scarier, since … it makes you realize: this is probably how events like this often go.

But that’s the thing about Huppert, and why she is unlike anybody else: you don’t NEED those conversations to occur, you don’t NEED to lead the audience by the hand. Besides, when you’re talking about psychopathy – which is what La Ceremonie is all about – psychology really doesn’t come into it. That’s why people are fascinated. What is it like to have … no depth? Huppert shows you.

But she can show you the opposite, too. Like Charlotte Rampling, like Theresa Russell, like Bibi Andersson – all actresses whom I consider to be in a similar category – if you can even categorize it – they don’t work IN the moment. They work way way WAY out on the far EDGE of any given moment, pushing it as far as it can go, so much so that they’re out in outer space, without oxygen. Their work is not literal in that way … they don’t work in easily-verbalized labels, they don’t take traditional routes, they don’t think traditionally. They go so much deeper “into character” that you are forced to lean forward, in awe, wondering: How … HOW … are they doing what they’re doing?

The eeriest thing about Isabelle Huppert is she doesn’t make a big deal of ANY of it. She came to Ebertfest for the screening of Elle, and during the QA following it was obvious how different she was from most other actresses. Actors want you to know how much work they’ve done. They list their research. They detail their process. This is not to say that process isn’t important and/or fascinating. If you know me, you know I love process. But Huppert … what IS her process? It doesn’t seem to exist at all. All that exists is the truth of the moment. And her ability to play make-believe within the moment. If I had to boil it down, I would say: she senses what is needed in any given script, and she devotes herself fully to that which is needed. She has no trouble excluding the things that AREN’T necessary (see, again, La Ceremonie. She is ALL surface in that. It’s why she is so tremendously frightening in it). She doesn’t worry about making herself understandable to an audience.

Think of her performance in The Piano Teacher. Now I love Meryl Streep, but it’s hard to picture her going where Huppert goes in that performance. Huppert is adorable and glamorous, and she can often be hilarious. She is very “realistic” – you never feel her “acting”. But she has zero fear about the ugliness of this world. She’s almost unwatchable in The Piano Teacher, the pain is so titanic and yet Huppert herself – the actress – breezes out of whatever role she plays un-touched. It’s like Gena Rowlands. Off-screen, Rowlands is a stable woman. She raised kids, she was supportive of her husband, she kept the house, she was responsible. But the roles Cassavetes gave her allowed her to let the panther out, the panther of her understanding of madness. Something similar happens with Huppert.

The woman I saw at Ebertfest saw Elle as a lark. That movie erupted a controversy – does the film endorse or condone rape? – one of those tiresome controversies it’s hard to avoid. I don’t mean to criticize those who hated the film. If you hated it, that’s of course fine. But I can think of nothing more tiresome than worrying over whether or not a movie condones bad behavior. I prefer to leave that to PTA groups and Christian family values organizations. I want no part of that. For such an upsetting movie, with such a bizarre central character (played by Huppert), the way Huppert discussed it really struck me. She had fun doing it.

She understood Paul Verhoeven. She understood that the film was not meant to be realistic AND that she wasn’t playing a strictly realistic character. “You’re not going to meet this person on the subway,” said Huppert.

And so she didn’t sweat it.

This is the thing I find so amazing about Huppert’s work, which is amazingly consistent in its excellence, and it’s just gotten more and more interesting as the years have gone by.

Some of the things I’ve written about Huppert:

I was going to write about La Ceremonie for my column at Film Comment (sob), but the movie was somewhat hard to find a couple of years ago. It’s now streaming on the Criterion Channel. Huzzah! I wrote about “folie a deux” films recently on my Substack, and of course, wrote about La Ceremonie, among other films.

Then there was Elle, which I adored. And to all the female film critics on Twitter who said things like, “No one who has been assaulted could like Elle“: How about you come up with an actual argument for why you didn’t like the film? You know, like, do your job, instead of attacking the women who did love the film – and there were many of us – in such a DISGUSTING way. I’ve been assaulted and I loved Elle. How DARE you. Only women do this to each other, by the way. I’ve been dealing with it since I was in high school. They draw lines, set up borders, police each other: You’re the RIGHT kind of woman, you’re one of us, and you’re the WRONG kind of woman, and so we don’t include you in our charmed circle. I think the film is brilliant on the concept of consent. I got into that in my Ebert review.

I also reviewed Mia Hansen-Løve’s wonderful film Things to Come (more on Hansen-Love here), which came out on the heels of Elle, and together they can be a master-class in why she is so unique. Things to Come is the epitome of down to earth and realistic. Elle is extremely stylized.

She can do both. Without breaking a sweat.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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6 Responses to “The Greeks already understood that there was more interest in portraying an unusual character than a usual character – that is the purpose of films and theatre.” — Isabelle Huppert

  1. Scott Abraham says:

    Elle fucked me up for days. Completely unsettled. Like, her calling him for a ride after the crash – it made sense in the moment, somehow? Am I deranged now? WHAT JUST HAPPENED WHY?

    • sheila says:

      Scott – I KNOW, right??

      People literally gasped around me in the theatre at that moment – when she called him – you could almost feel them turning on the movie. It was so exciting – I love it when that happens.

      Huppert makes it all make sense – she’s such a great “vessel” for directors – because she has total faith in their vision, and just abandons herself to it.

    • sheila says:

      Also the scene where she’s peeping at the neighbor through the binoculars and getting turned on watching him set up his gigantic nativity scene. lol It’s insane!!

  2. mutecypher says:

    I went back and re-read her NYT interview from 2022 – https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/15/movies/isabelle-huppert-career.html

    I was struck by a comment Goddard made about her and her response:

    “It’s visible when she is thinking.” That is probably one of the best compliments I’ve gotten in my life.

    I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here. I’ve been watching The Last of Us and Anna Torv was in the first few episodes. I was reminded of how much I like her. So I’ve done a quick rewatch of Mindhunter, and I’m in the midst of a longer rewatch of Fringe. “It’s visible when she’s thinking” is one of my favorite things about her.

    And speaking of Fringe, there was an episode with Theresa Russell. She played a middle aged woman who had been given hallucinogens 25 years earlier by John Noble’s character. She played it like it was such a life changing, life affirming time in her life and she had such genuine affection for him. It was incredible, she was so magnetic. I wanted her in every episode.

    Back to Isabelle and that NYT interview… She commented

    The relationship between a director and an actress is so powerful and fascinating. Why does a director want to film you? Why is he interested in what you are, your face, your body, your way of moving or talking? It’s unconscious and conscious, it’s an invisible and mute language, but it is a language.

    You made a comment in a similar vein in the Mia Hansen-Love essay – with respect a director finding some sort of awe in an actress. Assayas and Kristen Stewart, for example. IH is such a fascinating actress. Intriguing in the NYT interview where she says she does not play soft characters. Did she comment on that in any way when she was at Ebertfest for Elle and Things to Come?

  3. Lyrie says:

    She always seems so relaxed as a performer, and so confident even in the most bizarre things. She’s never not interesting to watch. 
    When I was a young teenager, I lived with my grandparents and uncle for a few months. They are some of the most joyless, humourless people I have ever met – especially as a unit, it’s striking. Everything was taboo. No talk of politics, religion, there were no books and no movies, and certainly nothing even remotely sexual, ever. My two uncles were bachelors, and I don’t think the family has ever heard of any romantic relationships, if there were any. I have seen my grandfather laugh ONCE in my whole life, when I had my dog and he played with her, and I remember that moment so clearly because it was just so shocking to discover he was physically capable of it. As you can imagine, my presence there was such a clash. 
    That summer, the tv channel which was always on for the local then national news had a long teaser made of cuts of different movies and tv shows that would be available to watch. One of them was Isabelle Huppert, in Les valseuses, maybe? Just a few seconds, a close of Huppert, so young, not moving, saying with the most deadpan face “oh, je jouis” (I’m coming). That teaser played all summer, and that bit was so, so funny, and so inappropriate, and watching it with my grandparents and uncle around, and stifling a laugh, trying not to show I knew what it meant,… Anyway, clearly, it’s been decades, and when I think of Isabelle Huppert, I think of many performances (I need to re-watch Elle), but I also always hear “oh, je jouis.”

    • sheila says:

      Lyrie –

      sorry it took me a while to get back to this.

      These memories – plus the teaser trailer – is fascinating!! I love how memories work like this – how we associate things with other things – how a glimpse of Huppert can call up this whole time in your life and what it meant to you.

      // watching it with my grandparents and uncle around, and stifling a laugh, trying not to show I knew what it meant, //

      Oh my God. I can just see this.

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