Flower of Evil

The trouble with actress Isabelle Huppert

There’s the sex, of course. Isabelle Huppert has been a movie star to watch ever since, as a petite twenty-year-old redhead with freckles, she was dangled by director Bertrand Blier like a piece of cheese before Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere in the scandalously satirical 1974 road trip, Les Valseuses, aka Going Places. Those two oafish drifters pick up the Huppert character’s scent, literally, when they break into her family’s vacant summer house and discover a pair of her panties. Later, after abducting her from her parents, the goons ravish her in a sunny field of grass, assisted by their partner in crime, Miou-Miou.

Twenty-seven years after Going Places, Huppert had graduated to full-fledged sexual predator status. In her wrenching, painful-to-witness role as “repressed spinster” Erika Kohut in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste (English title: The Piano Teacher), Huppert hectors anxious classical music students by day and then pays nocturnal visits to porno shops, entering private video booths just after they’re vacated by men customers and sniffing their discarded Kleenexes while watching fuck flicks. But the true object of her obsession is a young, gifted pianist, played by Benoît Magimel, for whom she would destroy everything, including herself.

In between these two roles, Huppert methodically carved out a career that offered much more than just sexual titillation. That career is on display at the Pacific Film Archive in “Isabelle Huppert: Passion and Contradiction,” a provocative fifteen-film retrospective curated by PFA director Susan Oxtoby, now through June 30. If you’re tired of happy endings, brainless love goddesses, and cardboard heroes at the movies, here’s a chance to get your hands dirty.

As the leading French film actress of her generation, Parisian native Huppert has seemingly made a point of portraying complex, unfortunate, unsympathetic women as if she were trying to redeem them from the inside out, justifying their crimes and misdemeanors, first to herself, and then to the audience — as if mediating between them and us, carrying their burden as if it were her own. It’s almost impossible to imagine Huppert as, say, a romantic comedian playing the dating game with a routine leading man. We’d keep waiting for her pull out the knife. And besides, the Huppert heroine would probably prefer a thug. Or a convenient sugar daddy with a fatal flaw. Or a female malcontent like herself.

Miou-Miou and Huppert may have been boy toys for the sardonic Blier in Going Places, but in 1983’s Coup de Foudre (American title: Entre Nous), they teamed up as filmmaker Diane Kurys’ ultimate female survivors — a pair of WWII refugees, full of grim longing and too burnt out by the horrors of war to sit still for their husbands’ petty lives. It’s a typical Huppert part: an attractive, unfulfilled woman opts out of the advantages of her beauty and instead chooses another route.

Among Huppert’s 92 feature films (by IMDB.com’s count) are challenging dramas by a roster of some of the world’s most interesting directors: Claude Goretta (The Lacemaker), Maurice Pialat (Loulou, again with Depardieu), Bertrand Tavernier (the Jim Thompson adaptation Coup de Torchon), Jean-Luc Godard (Sauve Qui Peut, aka Every Man for Himself; and Passion), François Ozon (8 Femmes, a deceptively lightweight musical whodunit), her sister Caroline Huppert (Signé Charlotte, as a femme fatale pop singer), Joseph Losey (The Trout), Werner Schroeter (Malina), David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees), Patrice Chéreau (Gabrielle), and even Michael Cimino, who in his notoriously misconstrued Heaven’s Gate cast Huppert as a 19th-century Wyoming hooker.

Huppert’s most sympathetic collaborator, however, the director with whom she has created her strongest and most enduring characterizations, is Claude Chabrol. Beginning in 1978 with Violette Nozière, in which Huppert played a diabolically opaque teenage girl, Chabrol and Huppert together have tapped into the dark side of the feminine mystique in scenarios that luxuriate in everyday dissatisfaction — the nagging, simmering envies and annoyances that blossom inevitably into mayhem. That dissatisfaction was probably there all along, even in Huppert’s early sex-kittenish roles, but it was Chabrol, the “French Hitchcock,” who helped the actress graduate from “pretty poison” flirts to her deepest, most unsettling portrayals. Inside Chabrol’s lovingly tended garden of middle-class malice, Huppert matured.

Une Affaire de Femmes (Story of Women) finds Huppert as a stony-hearted provincial housewife in Occupied France during WWII, unhappy with her disabled-soldier husband and children, who becomes an abortionist. It’s her miserable ticket to a better life, and of course it doesn’t quite work out. Huppert’s Emma Bovary in Chabrol’s ostensibly placid version of Madame Bovary invests Flaubert’s portrait of stifled womanhood with unmistakable flintiness — it chafes against the beautiful images with perfect irony. La Cérémonie, arguably Chabrol and Huppert’s finest joint effort, matches Huppert with Sandrine Bonnaire as a disgruntled postal clerk and sinister housekeeper, respectively, against which the self-satisfied, opera-loving family of Jacqueline Bisset hasn’t a ghost of a chance. Scheming in her little post office, Huppert’s Jeanne, a nasty piece of work, snarls at Bisset and her gentlefolk, the same class-warfare snarl we saw in Story of Women, or indeed in any number of Huppert films in which a trapped woman lashes out at her tormentors. It’s an archetypal image, the face in the front row of the public execution, the face of the collabo, or of the mother who inexplicably drowns her children.

And then there’s the Huppert laugh. Chabrol’s Merci pour le Chocolat (2000) presents another well-fed bourgeois group, this time Swiss, presided over by Mika (Huppert), an heiress who delights in making hot chocolate for her delightfully dysfunctional family — forcing the stuff on them, in fact, in a joyless evening ritual. Mika is prone to clumsiness. She’s constantly dropping and spilling things. When the people around her start to drop, as well, she suddenly gives that nervous, malicious laugh, the same one Jeanne the postal clerk used in La Cérémonie, and right away we know Mika is the killer. But then, by now whenever we see Huppert’s name on a Chabrol movie we anticipate her guilt as a given. Predictable? Maybe, but for artists like these the motivation is always more important than the act itself, and no one probes the murky depths of ordinary unhappiness quite so elegantly as Chabrol and his once and future vedette, Huppert.

“Isabelle Huppert: Passion and Contradiction” opens Friday, June 9 with a screening of The Lacemaker at 7 p.m. Go to BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu for a complete schedule.

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