Elle, Isabelle Huppert

Parallels Screens

A major misunderstanding would have us believe that film actors, as opposed to filmmakers, writers, and technicians, devote their work to their audience, and therefore owe something to them. And the audience, provided they worship them, won’t think twice about claiming what is due. A radical misunderstanding, then, since actors, as we all know, only perform for themselves. Whenever an actor reaches self-accomplishment, whether through steadiness of his work or a major first role, the success he achieves belongs to himself at last: not to the audience, nor the film-maker. He becomes his own author. Such a need for self-accomplishment, of belonging to himself at last ultimately sets the frequency of his appearances on screen: if an actor’s performances are intensified over time, it is through a mix of luck and strong will, soliciting those he wishes to perform with and who seem to him capable of assisting with the task he has assigned himself – one often explaining why they have chosen to become actors in the first place. What is this first motivation? Isabelle Huppert, in one of her thrilling interviews granted all through her career, finds a beautiful comparison linking her prodigious, unwavering image on screen and the impossible repletion of her desire to perform, making of her a “muse” for a number of film-makers (Chabrol, Jacquot, Haneke, etc) as much as the unexpected collaborator of authors whose path she might not have crossed, perhaps, if she hadn’t brought herself to their attention, like Hong Sang-soo. « Since my earliest experiences, I have ignored what stopping is, strictly speaking. There’s always a projet.
I love acting even more because of both its centrality and insufficiency. Like a vase one would be spending a lifetime filling, without ever succeeding.1 » This image of the vase is lovely in its evocation of another great image of permanence in cinema: Ozu’s still lives, and more specifically one of a famous vase in Late
Spring, inserted on two occasions for a fairly long duration, between shots of Setsuko Hara lying in the shade, moved by the vision of her sleeping father. This shot has been interpreted in different ways: Paul Schrader sees in it the expression of the repressed breaking away from everyday banality (the image of a vase that is potentially going to spill over); Shigehiko Hasumi the index of erotic tension which the harmonious curves of the vase might instill in the spectator’s mind (sensuality of forms, drop after drop titillation). Gilles Deleuze has most strikingly commented this shot. This vase, like all of Ozu’s still lives, is the immutable form of change, that is to say of time at its purest, as he explained to his students in his January 24th 1984 class: « Still life, is the unchanging as the necessary correlation of what changes. It is form filled by change itself. (…) It is the immutable form of change. (…) Why? Because, for obvious reasons, the form of what changes does not change in itself. (…) The form of change does not change, and yet everything in that form changes. Yes, all content of such form changes but the form of what changes, does not. » Something similar is at work in the way Isabelle Huppert has built her oeuvre over the years: a mix of permanence and impermanence, of strict discipline and an insatiable appetite. A flawless oeuvre, carried by her willingness to embody rather than imitate, of taking away instead of adding, of underrather than over-performing, contracting instead of amplifying; seemingly impassible so she can listen more closely to what comes back to the surface leading her to adopt, if need be, far more intentional, technical and plastic performances. This vase never spills over because no filling will ever make up for the void left inside. Lack or difficulty finding words, difficulty in making oneself heard: such is the feeling of emptiness no doubt leading an actor to his craft. Or, instead, the legitimate recognition of a fundamental void, of one’s self as an empty envelope, a body-cave which other people’s words might help keep and work on through form. Characters enable the actor to make a body for himself, not the other way around. All performance fundamentally deals with suffering from emptiness. Somehow, this is how Isabelle Huppert accounts for such a demonic character as the one she embodies in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, victim of a sexual attack whose weight seems to be gliding over her and ands up giving in to her assailant’s strategy, until the logic of domination is overthrown: « the film’s purpose is not to show suffering, but a series of events taking place, and the way a woman faces them. It’s another way of seeing a life trajectory, closer to reality. In life we are on the side of confrontation with what happens to us, not on the side of self-pity or reflection on what we go through. Such romantic visions are far removed from reality. That’s the way we are in life, forced to move forward no matter what happens, from morning till evening, with no time to stop. We are always on the move.2 » In other words, always in motion: in the permanent form of change. Unrelentingly facing suffering by doing things one’s own way, despite the chance of being chastized for threatening the established order, that is the recurring fictional material of the roles Huppert has embodied, which she has chosen or called – « the image of unhappy fulfillingness 3», as Daney used to say. In Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker, who fantasizes about his principal actor in the modern version of a humble extra in a Vermeer painting, she lies to the lover who has led her astray and agree to come and see her at the asylum where she is resting, pretending having had lovers after him in Mykonos about whom all she knows is the poster on display on the wall facing her in the hall where she has her meals. From this

point she will be giving one of her first long camera-gazes as tragic as they are bold, which also seems to clearly show contempt for the hypocritical author of her suffering instead of vindicating the mistakes deliberately made in contempt for monotony. In her first role with Chabrol, Violette Nozière poisons her parents whenever she has trouble or no longer wishes to dissimulate that she’s not the good and goofy girl anymore whose allure she kept every evening when coming back home. In Pialat she holds firmly onto her independence when the tearful men she breaks up with expect nothing but possessing her. Angel maker in Une affaire de femmes, she does not keep a low profile for too long when the benefits of her illegal business enable her to access the fine pleasures war and hard times had deprived her of – which she is also judged for and, denying all guilt, throws in a final, and rightly infamous, big close-up: « Hail Mary, full of shit ». These roles accuse, manifest or overcome some kind of dissatisfaction or profound boredom, a family’s, a couple’s or of middleclass comfort whose trace she carries and end up causing her to rise up in revolt or show contempt in such popular comedies as Alexandra Leclère’s Les Soeurs fâchées as in such authors as Chabrol (Merci pour le chocolat) or Ruiz (Comédie de l’innocence). In her recent book devoted to the actress4, Murielle Joudet goes through a comprehensive survey of this as-for-one’s-self taking boredom « as the very color of her acting », of her bovarysm, and the story of the character she’s playing as it gets harder, and the increasing firmness of her will. We get acquainted with her seeing her « seated over there, on her stool, her gaze somewhere in the void » (Faustine et le bel été), the girl with the sulky voice, filled with expectation, mumbling. Of her indolence (Violette Nozière), of her neglecting cruelty towards the man she abandons and leaves in hope (Loulou), or her « absence to herself » when she starts earning a living lending her body to those who wish to purchase it (Sauve qui peut la vie). « The most loyal partner in a game » of violence who ends up falling over her (Violette Nozière, Heaven’s Gate, Une Affaire de femmes, Elle, etc.). « A body thirsty with intensity, lacking reality and destined to suffer under the blows of frustration » (Madame Bovary). Her wish to perform stupidity, childishness, frivolity, immaturity, denial, unsatiability; and, further still, cold anger, repugnance, disgust, hatred, jubilation more or less open to damage, pugnacious vengeance (Bovary, La Cérémonie, Merci pour le chocolat, L’Ivresse du pouvoir). Suffering ritualized in sadomasochism (La Pianiste), desire for tabula rasa (Villa Amalia, L’Avenir), rêverie and solitude in exile (In Another Country). To this list, we might add her « catatonic » hyperactivity which the actress, directed by a film-maker who is a master of arythmia, takes pleasure in by poking fun at her image (Tip Top). In the end, what all this adds up to is not so much a chameleon identity as the one and the same person getting tougher while rejecting, at the same time, her limits and extending her empire over objects. This, without ever emphasizing an alleged mystery, a shadowy area, the indirect role a hidden secret and engine might play within the actress as much as in the character. « Not bad! », she brilliantly exclaimed once she was through with her story of her character’s childhood trauma in Elle– an exclamation which, according to Verhoeven, she might have just improvised. Everything is blatantly a representation, pleasure in performing, technique; and yet everything is always credible, spontaneous, perfectly adjusted to the Real. So much so that the impression of being knowledgeable about Isabelle Huppert, which every French spectator seems to have, is hard to account for in terms of a curiosity for anything but what she displays on screen or in terms of a perfect knowledge of her filmography: it may be accounted for, instead, in terms of understanding her role, its repetitive logic, and the possibility of opening up and blooming. Like Clément Rosset, the actress knows that personal identity is only an empty envelope, never saying much, and that it’s impossible to seize something like one’s “I”. Furthermore, « such lack of being of personal identity finds its most ordinary palliative in the acquisition of a borrowed identity 5». Borrowed identities are everywhere: they are roles, characters we might slip into without pretending we’re going to merge with; it’s also everything to be found within reach, enabling us to relate to the situation, to let stories about things unfold. All it takes is being at the heart of the Real. In an intriguing special edition of the Cahiers du cinéma under her auspices, an opportunity for her to be in conversation with Nathalie Sarraute, Brian de Palma, Paul Virilio or Pedro Almodovar, François Régnault wrote what, to this day, is perhaps one of the finest texts about the actress – a text where we understand why, as spectators, we need Isabelle Huppert – from his own work in theatre and, in particular Peter Zadek’s Measure for Measure, where she appeared immediately on stage, moving around to get a feel for the hall, before her clergywoman costume was handed over to her. « This staggering effect has become notorious for all those who were subjected to it, and there were many of us who were really struck by it. Was it not enough for itself? What could the actress have added to it? Unheard of concentration, because there is something which never deceives you in the art of acting: it’s concentration. Concentration is the unconscious of the actor once he has become visible. We know what the actor’s art is, it’s a knot. The knot of discourse coming from elsewhere, from a body as image the actor gives of himself, and of his « truly real unconscious », if we borrow Lacan’s definition of acting, which we find in his lessons on Hamlet. That ought to help us avoid once and for all the dispute (…) on the actor’s role: my character and I, me and my character, identification and distancing. The right distancing, we were saying, is the right identification. We can always correct excessively sticky identification with a little distancing and sterile distancing with a little identification, but it is only a misunderstanding. All it takes is placing the candle exactly at the heart of the optical apparatus in order to achieve proper acting and spare the actor a cross-eyed view of his role, or the deadly confrontation with the character: am I or am I not Hamlet, will I be Ophelia? Concentration is the instant when, sometimes, with nothing to say, and the body standing perfectly still – therefore with all evidence of performance reduced to nothing – the actor’s unconscious offers itself in its entirety and yet remains unseizable at the same time. A stone – and it’s looking.6 »
Antoine Thirion