Fresh off the triumph of her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), the French actress Isabelle Huppert is, at 63 and four decades into her career, starting to reap major American award season appreciation. The Golden Globe was a surprise win, but to those who are familiar with her work, it’s well-deserved. Her accumulation of critical acclaim and European awards has garnered her the title of the “French Meryl Streep,” but her career’s variety, international scope and pure nerve outstrip even Streep’s. “Fearless” could be the most commonly used descriptor applied to Huppert, who is known to take on roles that other major actresses won’t go near: insanity, depravity, crime, and other controversial subject matter are Huppert hallmarks. However, it’s not merely the nature of her characters that sets her apart, it’s the thought-provoking ambiguities she riddles them with.
“I’ve never seen an actor add so much that was not in the script,” raves Verhoeven(1). Huppert’s unusual levels of contribution to her films cross over into categories of authorship, her role as actress posing questions about the lines between directors and actors, screenwriters and actors. Cahiers du cinéma once opined that Huppert was a case of “actress metamorphosed with director,”(2) a sentiment persistent enough that she’s been asked if she’s considered directing her own films. “I’m a little bit like my own director,” she’s said(3). The recurring motifs in her body of work (underlying themes, heightened degree of input) cumulatively make her feel that “I’m excavating my own film inside all the films I move through.” Ultimately, she enjoys being creative on camera too much to forsake acting. In a special issue of Cahiers du cinéma she herself edited, she describes a quality she deems her “double gaze”: being both subject and object, actress and writer. “I enjoy being both subject and object and in my films; in other words, being able to create a space in which I can stand back. […] I cannot help but have that double gaze. Why do I say double? In theory, it should be the director who stands back and looks on. When I adopt this analytic approach, I adopt the position of the writer rather than that of actress."
She compares her method of creation within performance to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, describing her penchant for choosing central roles that leave enough “space” on the script’s pages to experiment on camera with layers of uncertainty and tension. In the case of Elle, Verhoeven recognized this ability of Huppert’s and built the production around her to “let her do what she wanted,”(4) which she confirms: "With Paul’s mise-en-scene, his camera movements, he[…] let me occupy the whole space.”(5) She thrives on roles that are not meticulously etched out, that allow her to portray supposed contradictions and utilize “my different states”(6) to create something more encompassing. Robert Wilson’s stage production of Woolf’s Orlando lacked realism yet freed her to deliver the performance she feels is closest to herself and her wide range of feeling. In its abstract staging, its literary origins and pliable sense of time and gender, finally the material matched her capacities. Huppert purposefully seeks out roles that have these multiple dimensions, grey areas, and she comes in to amplify them—or add it herself. She wants to utilize the tools specific to film as a medium to deepen complexities of character. “I look for roles that will give me that space to explore. The camera allows you to have that ambiguity. You can say one thing while expressing the opposite.”(7) Indeed, a lot of significance of her roles are in the nonverbal aspect. "For her, there is a line and there is what’s behind it,” says Mia Hansen-Løve. “The line is just part of what she has to say, just part of what she thinks or feels.”(8)
Dialogue and the script are the tip of the iceberg: she’s built her career around directors foremost, rather than scripts. “There’s no material to be saved by a bad director’s hand,” she says. “It has all to do with what the director makes out of it.”(9) In a seemingly strange contrast to this emphasis on filmmakers, she doesn’t discuss much with them about characterization and she loathes rehearsal. Her work is created largely on set: it’s the mise en scène above all that pushes and feeds her performance as she goes. “A character is not an individual creation. It’s being carried and shaped by all these other elements,” she says, mentioning that through processes like “preparing costumes… something under the surface is revealed.”(10)
Early in her career, she played Anne Brontë in André Téchiné’s The Bronte Sisters (1979) as a seemingly passive young woman who in truth is fed by her quiet observations to become a posthumously revered author. This vacillation of dormancy and activity stayed with her: “I always think of the Bronte sisters,” she says, describing the contrast between their "vivid imaginations”(11) and quiet isolated lifestyles. Latency and the subterranean are the Huppert signature and guiding principle: her performances are achieved primarily through imagination rather than literal experience or Method acting and question the definitions of passivity versus activity. Huppert believes American acting doesn’t often risk “what it means to listen, what it means to have a blank face.”(12) Cinema holds unique potential for expressing these tensions of the unspoken and obscured: "The camera lens is like a microscope that goes beyond the surface. It’s like you’re exploring a secret,” she says. Film is “about exploring the invisible.”(13)
Huppert has a genuine symbiosis with female authors in particular. Her sympathy does not stop at adopting their stories for the self-serving glamour of playing them in award-baiting cinematic vehicles: in her projects, women have been important in the notoriously difficult space behind the camera since the beginning of her career. Playwrights (Sarah Kane), screenwriters (such as Elfriede Jelinek, who cowrote both The Piano Teacher and Werner Schroeter’s Malina (1991), an alarming double feature of self-destructive women in the arts), and especially, filmmakers: she’s appeared in several films directed by women since the 80s - including one created for her by her sister Caroline, Sincerely Charlotte (1985). In 2004, Huppert helped create interest in Barbara Loden’s largely unseen film Wanda (1970) by releasing the film on DVD in France and continues to advocate for the film and Loden’s accomplishment on a regular basis.
Huppert’s carefully constructed body of work, shrewd and unsentimental approach to the film business, and considerable insight led Susan Sontag to herald her as a “total artist”(14) and the most intelligent actor she’d known. In Huppert’s emotional Golden Globes acceptance speech, she concluded emphasizing: “Do not expect cinema to set up walls and borders.” In a characteristic double meaning, it was a comment made in the context of the atmosphere of that night politically, yet reflective in general of the wide-ranging scope of her career.