Isabelle Huppert's 10 Most Essential Performances
Isabelle Huppert has had a career that is something to celebrate, and over the years this fearless actress has dazzled us with her unbridled talent, solidifying her place as one of world cinema's fixtures in acting. Here are 10 performances that are essential to understanding the enigmatic actress.
10. Amateur (1994)
Before the influence of directors like Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith on the American independent scene, idiosyncratic filmmakers like Hal Hartley made movies like Amateur. Where else can you find Isabelle Huppert playing a chain-smoking former nun who helps a dangerous amnesiac while she’s struggling to earn her place as a pornography writer. Did I mention that her character is also a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who’s never had sex? Hartley and Huppert make this jittery comedy thriller work while commenting on the actresses stature in world cinema in guying her marketable sexuality. In an intentionally silly portrait, Huppert makes the most of her fish out of water presence, played with such precision and tact that makes Amateur unforgettable.
9. White Material (2009)
Claire Denis examines the pitfalls of French colonialism as the Vial family is running a coffee plantation helmed by a pitiless matriarch Maria (Huppert), who’s operating woefully ignoring the dangers of a civil war that is brewing around them. Huppert shines in White Material in playing a variation of a character she is consistent in exploring (tough, haughty), because her talents keep her from devolving into a one dimensional archetype or caricature. While there’s allegorical material sprouting from every which way, and Maria is indeed shrewd (to a fault) in her practice, she also has a family. Huppert is in control of her characters so thoroughly, to the point that her abilities to expand the thematic weight is astonishing, and never veers into manipulation.
8. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Interestingly, United Artists executive Steven Field and David Bach feuded with director Michael Cimino (there were many) over the casting of Huppert in this film. Bach and Field thought her English was terrible, said “she was dead wrong”, but a frustrated Cimino called and told Steven Field to “go fuck himself” and cast Huppert anyway. Of all the scarred careers and damaged egos that followed the infamous production of Heaven’s Gate, Isabelle Huppert walked away the most unscathed, enjoying a fruitful career ever since. Ironically, Huppert was considered fatally miscast and yet she stands out among some powerful performances as one of the strongest cards in Cimino’s film. Huppert’s worldly demure, sexually liberated, and plucky brothel madam Ella Watson - Cimino was a belligerent ass throughout the production but his instinctual casting is commendable.
7. Coup de Torchon (1981)
An early highlight in Huppert’s long line of highlights is a most unlikely neo-noir taking place in pre-WWII French Africa, playing what could be best described as a an anti-femme fatale in Bertrand Tavernier's Coup De Torchon. Huppert’s sardonic Rose is in love with the man who killed her husband, in what could be a two-dimensional characterization Huppert brings her characteristic icy flippancy, and we can see why she’d be a treasured actress for years to follow.
6. Story of Women (1988)
There’s plenty of great Huppert/Chabrol collaborations, but Story of Women is a standout title for the actor/director team as they jointly forge new ground while retaining the restrained chemistry that energized their careers. In Nazi-occupied France, Marie Latour (Huppert) is a single mother living in poverty who finds a lucrative lifestyle by performing illegal abortions; many of her customers are prostitutes serving the German soldiers in this proto-feminist allegory come social object lesson. But, like so many Chabrol films, he and Huppert insert a substantial existential buffer between the characters and their actions; judgment and ideals are sidestepped, and this is when Huppert’s relative iciness works to its greatest effect.
5. L’avenir (Things to Come) (2016)
Huppert has the momentum of a studio-era performer and by proxy elevates whatever she appears in, and I think it’s more than safe to say 2015-16 have been an astounding run for the French actress with Valley of Love, Louder than Bombs (which I have yet to see), Elle, and of course L’avenir. Recency bias perhaps, but I don’t think there’s any way to short change what magnificent force Huppert exudes as a pragmatic philosophy professor facing a series of crossroads in life. I feel like L’avenir is the “anti-Elle” as it features the same leading actress with a dysfunctional family and unexpectedly calm demeanor to what seems like soul-crushing events, except there’s no serial rapist present. Rooted in a moderate expressionism and measured tone and style, L’avenir embraces the idiosyncrasies of life for what they are, and Huppert makes it all so sincere.
4. La Cérémonie (1995)
Another collaboration with Chabrol, but an utterly implacable rebel yell against bourgeois complacency, that stings more than most of the director's work enlivened by one of Huppert’s most memorable performances. La Cérémonie introduces us to the distinct pleasure that is a vehicle for two iconic French actresses, putting Huppert with Sandrine Bonnaire who plays a quietly faithful maid whose fierce loyalty masks her illiteracy; once she befriends the local postmaster, an aggressively self-styled, freewheeling Jeanne (Huppert) things get an out of hand as their yin-yang friendship spurns a destructive fate for both women and the family involved. There’s no way to tell what direction this film will go in, just like Huppert’s Jeane who epitomizes the consequence free “live now, think later” existence channels a chilling and unexpected reveal.
3. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Haneke is a filmmaker that will never offer an easy way out, or anything reliable in the way of “solutions” for his films. The Piano Teacher is the apex of his controversial oeuvre, and his talent is matched by an equally fearless personage in working with Huppert. While Amour is rightfully hailed as a masterpiece, Huppert and Haneke found a nugget of inspiration that matched their aesthetic purview, and the result of their collaboration in The Piano Teacher broadcast a fully matured salaciousness; outflanking the director’s penchant for confrontational cinema as it’s bolstered by an auteurist actress such as Huppert.
2. Loulou (1980)
Once again we find Huppert standing in as muse for Maurice Pialat (sometimes referred to as the French John Cassavetes) in what many consider to be his finest work. Loulou is an emotional tightrope that each character straddles, and more often than not they fall, and we’re left to see their remains on the sidewalk. Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu make each other shine in this tale of amour fou if there ever was one. Huppert’s Nelly drifts away from her moody boyfriend toward amiable (but dangerous drifter) Loulou - this romance between bourgeoisie femininity and youthful, husking masculinity (leather-clad Depardieu is hard not to liken to a young Marlon Brando), swells and deflates with eruptive passion and realism. Huppert’s cherubic naivete is intoxicating, and this somewhat early breakthrough leaves you with no question that this actress would go on to great heights. Pialat is often referred to as an actor's director, but I would make the case that Huppert is a director's actor.
1. Elle (2016)
Was anyone expecting a film like Elle? If we ever needed the reassurance of Huppert’s explosive talent as an actress, here it is; some directors have their muse relationships (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski) producing some of their best work, but Huppert’s instant-muse quality seems to infect every headline director she works with. Chabrol, Haneke, Hartley, Tavernier, and now, provocateur-extraordinaire Paul Verhoeven. This enfants terribles of a film flips every convention on its head, and with any other performer, Elle simply would have fizzled out as a raunchy euro-shocker. Instead, Huppert plays every angle with razor-sharp gaze, wit, and tenor that anchors the potentially egregious moments with assured aesthetic, and manages to tell a crackling good story to boot. Only a director like Verhoeven could have brought Elle to life, but Huppert is the pulse that gives it such strength.
While I’d like have the honor of seeing every one of Huppert’s screen credits there’s still some blind spots to fill in, so sound off in the comment section with any movies you think should be on here!