The face of fearless cinema: French actress Isabelle Huppert at 65 | Film | DW | 16.03.2018
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The face of fearless cinema: French actress Isabelle Huppert at 65

The French actress has tackled roles in challenging and disturbing films with absolute fearlessness. As Isabelle Huppert turns 65, a look back at how she developed her "less is more" trademark acting style.

Isabelle Huppert began attending her first acting classes at the age of 14. By 18, she was filming her first movie. At 23, she became an international movie star.

To this day, she remains there, at the top of the A-List by repeatedly delivering award-worthy performances.

Born in Paris on March 16, 1953, Huppert appeared to be born into success. Her parents — a mother who teaches English and a father, an entrepreneur — are well-off. Although her father is of Jewish heritage, Isabelle and her four older siblings are educated Catholic and the fine arts have a natural place in the home. Acting classes during high school and admission to the Paris Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique: all of this seemed obvious within the context of Isabelle's life.

Nevertheless, she would never claim to have been lucky. "Luck does not just fall miraculously from the sky," she said. Rather, everyone can create the conditions of his or her happiness, she once said in an interview with the women's magazine Brigitte.

Huppert, the intellectual

She appears to be continuing to do this. Isabelle Huppert is relentless. She has a considerable body of work, and has been starring in two to three films a year for decades. Four of them will be released this year, including Benoît Jacquot's psycho-thriller "Eva," which competed at the 68th Berlinale, and in which Huppert, as a noble prostitute, drives a fraudulent writer into bondage and ultimately into catastrophe.

Eva Film still (picture alliance/Guy Ferrandis/MACASSAR PRODUCTIONS/EUROPACORP/ARTE France CINEMA/NJJ ENTERTAINMENT/SCOPE PICTURES /Berlinale/dpa)

Seductive and manipulative: Huppert in Jacquot's "Eva"

Extraordinary women marked by tragedy and surrounded by mystery — these are Huppert's trademark roles. Her choices in roles and collaboration with some of the most renowned directors in the world, such as Michael Haneke ("The Piano Teacher") or Claude Chabrol ("Violette Nozière"), have earned her a reputation as an "intellectual actress." This is inaccurate, she claims in an interview with Zeit Magazine, because her films —  even if they could be seen as intellectual —  do not say anything about her. She sees herself rather as a "tool" of the directors, following their instructions exactly, with hardly any improvisation.

Strong characters through minimal gestures

Huppert expresses the moods and mental state of her characters with precision and great sensitivity. Her seemingly expressionless face and sparing facial expressions have become something of a trademark.

Fiction has a tendency to inflate things, she said in an interview with The Financial Times in July 2017. "But when I look at people on the street, I find that most of them are pretty empty in their eyes. I have to do even less." To observe, she has been taught, you have to take away, not add something.

Still from The Piano Teacher (picture-alliance/United Archives)

Her performance in Michael Haneke's disturbing thriller "The Piano Teacher" was rewarded with her second best actress award in Cannes

But her acting style, one of reduction, has meant that audiences and critics often view Huppert as unapproachable, cool. It's an image that does not do justice to the French woman, who stands just 1.50 meters tall. Multi-faceted, she is married to the film director Ronald Chammah; the couple has three children.

Art and photography are among Huppert's passions. In her home, she collects photos and books —  "I want to hold tight to the positive memories from my life" — and gets scared when she has to go into confined spaces. 

Women on the edges of society get a voice

Huppert has appeared in around 140 films since 1972. She has found herself working with some directors repeatedly: Michael Haneke, Paul Verhoeven, the late Claude Chabrol or Bob Wilson.

Working with them, she can inhabit extreme characters — "survivors who can be victims and rebels simultaneously," says the actress. "My films give these women a voice. Because even though they live on the edges of society, they are there: women who live brutal lives. It's a brutality that they themselves never sought out," Huppert told Zeit Magazine.

Read more: 'Elle' wins at France's Cesar Awards

Filmstill aus Elle mit Isabelle Huppert (picture alliance/AP Photo/G. Ferrandis/Sony Pictures Classics)

In Verhoeven's "Elle" she plays a woman who takes revenge after being raped. Huppert got an Oscar nomination for the role

Her portrayals in these challenging roles have already earned Huppert numerous awards, among them the most important in the film industry: the French César, the European Film Award, Berlin's Silver Bear, Cannes' Best Actor Award and the Golden Globe. The statues decorate Huppert's home. All that is missing is the Oscar, an award for which she was finally nominated for the first time last year with "Elle" (Paul Verhoeven, 2017).

Absolute confidence

Of her acting capabilities, she says she has "unlimited self-confidence."

"I never doubt. I have absolutely no fear," she told The Financial Times. "There are so many other areas where I am not that ... Crossing the street, meeting people ... Everything that's vital. But acting, nothing can intimidate me. Acting is never an obstacle. I do it without thinking. It's like eating or drinking."

Now, at 65, looking back at a nearly 50-year-old career with continuous success and a controversy-free private life, one might ask: What more can Isabelle Huppert hope to accomplish? As she told Brigitte magazine, sometimes, there is "this slight meaningless phase of lazy exhaustion," there, though if she were to quit, she wouldn't know who to hand in her resignation to. She sometimes fantasizes about what she'd do instead. "Clearly, though, I am in opposition to this daydream."

 

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