Friday, September 3, 2010

Day 148: Favorite Actresses No 2 - Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert has appeared in over 90 film and television productions since 1971. Many of the characters that she plays are sexually provocative, slightly unhinged, emotionally remote and certainly not roles that I could imagine her compatriots Audrey Tatou or Juliette Binoche taking on (both fine actresses). It’s just that Ms Huppert seems to have carved out a certain niche for herself.

I think I first noticed her in a film that was part of the 1994 French Film Festival here in Sydney - La séparation - playing opposite another favourite French actor, Daniel Auteuil. La séparation tells the story of the disintegration of a couple, with Huppert’s character of Anne falling in love with other men whilst Auteil’s Pierre becomes more violent; not unfamiliar terrain for either performer.

But it was famously in La cérémonie (1995) that I really awoke to the acting prowess of Isabelle Huppert. Portraying a deranged postal worker, she plays opposite Sandrine Bonnaire and encourages the younger woman to stand up against her bourgeois employers, for whom Bonnaire is the housemaid. Claude Chabrol’s slow-burner is in fact an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s book 'A Judgement In Stone'. Now, I’d like to say a number of things: firstly, Chabrol, well, he’s just as much a French legend as Sacha Distel or Johnny Halliday. Secondly, it’s the Brits that normally do Ruth Rendell and it would generally end up on our tv screens on a Friday night but this reworking, by those existentially French, is one to hunt down. Chabrol calls this “the last Marxist film”, a movie about culture and class that “spirals down” towards an ending of violence that is worthy of those that stormed the Bastille.

Recently, this fine actress has had praise and awards heaped upon her for her role as Erika Kohut, in Michael Haneke’s uncompromising film The Piano Teacher. The character of Erika is a professor in a music conservatory, who, whilst in her forties, still lives with her domineering mother, and over the course of the story, falls for a much younger student, the 17 year-old Walter. But the “relationship” becomes obsessive, especially when the teacher begins to reveal her sexual proclivity for sadomasochistic fetishes. It doesn’t end well.

Nor does Ma mére (My Mother) end well for her character of Hélène, a woman who embarks on a sexual relationship with just about everyone, including her son, Pierre. I must confess to struggling with this film which appeared to me to a nihilistic and disjointed piece. The French love to push the boundaries of what might make us flinch in the cinema, especially when it comes to matters sexual (and I’m normally with them all the way), but this has to be one of the most despairing and possibly nonsensical pieces that I’ve come across. Yet, it is much feted, and familiar ground for Huppert.

I like Isabelle Huppert because she strikes me as someone who acts from her soul, her spirit, her groin, her gut and her heart as well as her mind; her performances are visceral, instinctive, fearless and emotional, which is ironic, given that she often plays emotionally-distant characters.

This is a woman who is obviously working non-stop, even as she approaches her sixties ( a triumph for an actress) and for my money, she is the antidote to the “it girls” and “ingenues” who, professionally, could be blown over with an acting feather.

Vive Isabelle!

Day #148 Tip: Be unflinching. audacious and lionhearted
Mr McKee says this on ‘risk’: “...Life teaches us that the measure of the value of any human desire is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit. The higher the value, the higher the risk. We give the ultimate values to those things that demand the ultimate risks - our freedom, our lives, our souls.”

Those are the sort of characters that we have to create, so that fine actors like Isabelle Huppert can dazzle us. First, we must take the risk of showing the inner workings of our own hearts and minds by bringing to life such characters and then, we must defend them and argue for them, fiercely and passionately if and when they might come under ill-conceived fire or criticism because they’ve been misunderstood or misinterpreted.

We may have much trial and error to traverse in order to hone our creations and “get them right” but bring them into being we must, even if they do emerge from the darkest recesses of our own shadows.

Courage mes amis, courage!

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