Huppert: French diva and global icon

Alliance Francaise in collaboration with the Embassy of France will host a fest dedicated to Isabelle Huppert, reports Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 17:27 IST

Fans who missed the six-film Isabelle Huppert retrospective at the 36th International Film Festival of India in Goa late last year have recompense – and much more – coming their way.

Alliance Francaise, New Delhi, in collaboration with the Embassy of France and Federation of Film Societies of India is hosting 'A Tribute to Isabelle Huppert', a package of ten of the brilliant French actress’ best films, from February 6 to 11.

The IFFI retrospective had Claude Chabrol’s Le Ceremonie and Madame Bovary, Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker, Michael Haneke’s The Pianist, Christian Vincent’s La Separation and Patricia Mazuy’s Saint-Cyr.

Four more films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself, Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, Diane Kurys’ Coup de Foudre and Olivier Dahan’s La vie Promise (The Ghost River) – have been added to that line-up, making it one of the most exciting and comprehensive tribute ever paid to a French movie icon in this part of the world.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished and gutsy screen actresses of her generation, 50-year-old Isabelle Huppert constantly pushes herself into regions of human experience that lie beyond the ken of the familiar and comfortable.

It was not without reason that the Venice Film Festival, the oldest event of its kind in the world, conferred a Special Lion on her last year as recognition of her lifetime contribution to the craft of acting.

Fans who missed the six-film Isabelle Huppert retrospective at the 36th International Film Festival of India in Goa late last year have recompense – and much more – coming their way.

Huppert blends her plain Jane looks and demeanour with her smouldering but skillfully modulated sensuality with deadly effect. She seems to be blessed with the divine ability to burn up a corner of the screen each time she walks across it. But despite that, her on-screen persona is always accessible, tangible, intimate, and rooted in the here and now.

Graduating from the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique, Paris, Huppert forayed into theatre (she still continues to be involved with the stage) with productions like Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Euripides’ Medea. She made her screen debut in 1971 at age 16. In 35 years and 70-odd films, she has carved a niche entirely her own.

Huppert is one of only two actress – Helen Mirren is the other – to have won the coveted Best Actress award in Cannes twice – first for her role as a young woman who murders her parents in Chabrol’s characteristically dark Violette Noziere (1978), then for her stunning interpretation of a sexually repressed piano teacher in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste (2001).

The intelligence and courage of Huppert the actress is best reflected in her choice of roles and directors. She has worked with a remarkably wide range of material not only with an array of top French directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol (with whom she has a long-standing and brilliantly productive creative partnership), Maurice Pialat and Bertrand Tavernier, but also with some of Europe’s most admired filmmakers – the likes of Andrzej Wajda, Marta Meszaros and, of course, Michael Haneke.

The sheer range of Huppert’s on-screen work is outstanding. From ingénue to victim of fate to femme fatale, she has done it all with rare skill and sympathy. From the sombre to the droll, from the mysterious to the insightful, she has hit every note without ever letting the effort show, without ever letting the passion flag.

In the 1970s, Huppert gave Hollywood a shot. In her first American film – Rosebud (1975), helmed by independent director Otto Preminger, she played one of five young women abducted by West Asian terrorists. Even in a crowd, it was easy to notice her exceptional histrionic abilities.

She could not, however, rescue Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1981). The debacle of that film curtailed Huppert’s Hollywood career. She has been seen only sporadically in US-made films, for example in Hal Hartley’s The Amateur, about a nun who becomes a writer of pornographic fiction.

The early 1980s mid-career turbulence, mercifully, did not last long. Huppert clawed back into the spotlight with a clutch of first-rate films such as Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (Tavernier gave the actress one of her first big hits in 1974, Les Valseuses, a film that also saw the emergence of French superstar Gerard Depardieu), Godard’s Passion and Diane Kurys’ unforgettable Coup de Foudre, all in the span of three heady years.

The 1980s also saw her in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, in the role of an upper class woman physically attracted to a loutish drifter, Chabrol’s Une Affaire de Femmes, as a middle-class woman sentenced to death for illegally carrying out abortions, and Australian director Paul Cox’s Cactus, an intriguing love story between a blind man who cultivates cacti and a one-eyed French émigré on the run from a dead-end marriage.

Huppert has only got better with age, continuing to deliver wonderfully well etched characters in more recent outings like Chabrol’s Madame Bovary and Le Ceremonie, Patricia Mazuy’s Saint-Cyr, Christian Vincent’s La Separation, Francois Ozon’s 8 Women and her latest release, Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle, based on a Joseph Conrad story about a man and woman ten years into a loveless marriage.

In the words of Serge Toubiana, Director, Cinematheque Francaise, Huppert enjoys “a natural sisterly bond between herself and her double”. He says: “Isabelle Huppert makes the audience look inside the soul, inside the body, inside the silences and blanks in her acting. If Isabelle is an actress who catches the light, then her light is inside her.”

It is that very light that lies at the root of the aura that surrounds the inimitable Isabelle Huppert.

First Published: Feb 02, 2006 19:33 IST