All due respect to Meryl Streep, who has more than earnt the laudatory accolades that now surround her career, but there’s no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is the finest screen actress working today. The 63-year-old Frenchwoman, who has been contributing the cinema since 1972, has been and remains a vital force in filmmaking; her presence in a feature is usually good reason alone to see it. Her finest performances are deeply authentic emotionally but without the slightest indication that Huppert is acting. She inhabits her characters, and their inner lives become self-apparent.
Isabelle Huppert was born and raised on the western edge of Paris, and was encouraged to act from an early age by her mother and father, an English teacher and safe manufacturer respectively, subsequently attending the French National Academy of Dramatic Arts. By the late 1970s she was renowned in France and while her one early leading Hollywood role, in Michael Cimino’s epic 1980 western Heaven’s Gate, was tainted by the film’s immense cost and box-office failure, Huppert continued to readily collaborate with leading directors: Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, Bertrand Tavernier, and Australia’s Paul Cox (in 1986’s Cactus) are just a few.
“My main and only concern is to be as truthful as possible,” Huppert recently explained in an interview, and that’s only increased the breadth of her roles and the standing of her work. In recent years she’s worked with the Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza (Captive) and his South Korean counterpart Hong Sang-soo (In Another Country), and now it’s as if every six month brings a startling new set of performances. She’s recently played the lead for Mia Hansen-Love in the naturalistic drama Things to Come, and next up will be seen in Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller Elle, so if you’re not sure where to start with such a daunting body of work, then SBS On Demand has two distinctly worthy Isabelle Huppert movies to get you started.
The 1990s was the decade that American independent filmmaking found both artistic renewal and a viable profile, and while the public face of the movement was a video store clerk and B-movie obsessive from Los Angeles named Quentin Tarantino, there was also the idiosyncratic Hal Hartley, whose low-budget features such as Trust and Simple Men were arthouse mainstays. The dapper auteur used deadpan exchanges and oblique humour to chart romantic entanglements and mysterious connections, but with Amateur the insular stillness of his earlier works was jostled by a plot looped in from a thriller, complete with suited thugs and tragic gunplay.
Knowing that his story needed to balance sometimes contradictory elements, Hartley put Huppert at the centre of the story. She plays Isabelle, a nun of 15 years who has left her calling to live in downtown New York and make a living as a pornographer who’s never had sex. “What are you doing?” she asks a blind date groping her in a cinema. “I’m molesting you,” the man enthusiastically replies. “Am I supposed to like it?” she coolly enquires. Huppert, like Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn, who here plays a former porn star named Sofia, easily suggested the considered inscrutability of Hartley’s female characters, but there are also deeply felt currents of longing, uncertainty and pleasure readily divined.
Isabelle goes on the run with Thomas (Martin Donovan), a bloodied amnesiac she finds at the diner where she writes, and while the plot has international intrigue that includes some valuable floppy disks and a welcome burst of Parker Posey, Huppert is compelling at the centre of Hartley’s static camera compositions. She drily explains that she’s a choosy nymphomaniac, and speaks of religious visions, giving a quietly heartfelt pulse to a film that turns on the question of discovering who we truly are as people, and whether it’s truly possible to change if we don’t like what the answer is.
Upon reflection it’s surprising that it took until 2009 for Huppert to work with Claire Denis, one of the most important French filmmakers of the last three decades. Denis is a director who circles and considers key moments, creating a physical and psychological sense of a world without every issuing parameters or limits. That makes Huppert’s ability to encapsulate her character’s beliefs and thoughts in a single line or a silent gesture – the essence of what we sometimes still think of as an actor’s magic – the perfect accompaniment. Between the two women lies a profound brevity that can contain multitudes.
The setting is an unnamed contemporary African country, where the French army is quitting a dividing role between the nation’s government and active rebel groups in a northern province. The soldiers are the second last remnant of French colonial rule – that historic misdeed that continues to haunt a crucial strand of the country’s cinema – and last remnant are lifelong expatriates such as Maria Vial, a farmer who runs her extended family’s coffee plantation with obsessive dedication even as her workers flee fearing for their lives and senseless violence grows.
While the men in Maria’s life, whether her ineffectual husband André (Christopher Lambert), her unsteady son Manuel (Nicholas Duvauchelle) and her ageing father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor), struggle to comprehend the crisis, she ignores in favour of trying to get a crop harvested. Maria is not blind to what will undoubtedly happen, but she refuses to think about it. Huppert shows us how her increasingly desperate character is connected to the land but not the people who inhabit it, and as with the looming child soldiers traversing the landscape, Denis refuses to offer the audience a moral judgment or sympathetic protagonist. White Material is an agonisingly beautiful film, and Huppert is the fulcrum it precariously turns on.
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