(This is a reprint of the the first newsletter I sent out. You can subscribe to it here: https://tinyletter.com/CasparSalmon)
I grew up in the same town as Isabelle Huppert. Ville d'Avray is a serenely pretty, slightly colourless place in the Parisian suburbs, between Paris and the more rarefied Versailles. Ville d'Avray joins Versailles by a quiet road that wends past lakes and through the forest, finally opening out onto grand tree-lined boulevards that lead to the Chateau. To get to Paris from Ville d'Avray, you drive through the heights of St. Cloud, where Marine Le Pen grew up in a private residence, and wind down to where the Seine circumscribes the city. Ville d'Avray was memorialised in painting by Corot in the 1860s and on film by Serge Bourguignon in the 1960s, in his film Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray. The town is quiet, a little haven from the lights of Paris, and its inhabitants are wealthy, white, educated, bourgeois, presumably right-wing. Walking home from school I would go past enormous stone houses with big wrought-iron fences, such as the one Isabelle Huppert grew up in, and they felt mysterious and forbidding.
Huppert understands her privilege, and her body of work sets out with an almost calculating precision to needle at, defile, and destroy her bourgeoisie. In Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary, she conveys perfectly the gnawing sense of being stuck in an almost-place. Although Emma Bovary is of lowly stock, her aspiration to be better, to live more, to get to Paris at last, chimes with Huppert's recurring theme of a frustrated life. And Huppert, not for the first time, plays the mistress of the house, a big, foreign, daunting house that imprisons her within its codes. She does this in The Piano Teacher, too, leaning more into the perversion behind class systems - what Huppert does is not so much open the gates to the big house, but open them upon a sham: she shows the cruelty, the anguish, the screaming pain of the humans inhabiting these roles. Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher, and Michael Haneke, director of the film, are keen to work over the dislocation of the upper classes, the sense that they represent a crumbling caste, a totally vulnerable sect in a modern world they no longer own - and Huppert's performance fits into this, but she plays something else too, which is the soul of a woman. In The Piano Teacher, Huppert uses her body in an almost sacrificial way to locate something truly lost and damaged: this literal stripping away of artifice shows her decoding the role of the bourgeoise.
What is stunning about Isabelle Huppert's work is its artistic coherence. Time and again, although she has never written or directed a film, her work returns to these tropes. In Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, in one of her best, most fully incarnated performances, Huppert has no agency, and to see her so impassive and wan, flushed with tears and misery, is to see her again chipping away at the edifice of bourgeois roles: her tears are a rebuke, a hot embarrassment, and mark her resistance of sorts to the prison she finds herself in.
What are a woman's choices? Isabelle Huppert is thrillingly in control of her own career, being one of the only actors in the world to create projects, to reach out to directors, to suggest writers; but she also submits fully to a director's creation, molding herself into their story. This paradox plays out in the very characters she plays, who are shaped by the way they resist, the way they choose, or on the contrary are sometimes defeated by their lack of control. She flirts with this idea in Hong Sang-Soo's playful and delicious In Another Country, where she plays a sort of theory, a lost woman in a world that isn't her own, playing out a series of hypotheses set by her director; and she rams it home in Claude Chabrol's Story of Women, in which her wonderfully liberated, care-free, entrepreneurial backstreet abortionist is brought to her knees by a society of men who see her breaking free of her role as a wife and mother.
In her sensational brace of films this year, Things To Come and Elle, Huppert comes back to this. How she got the roles, how she made them what they are, is crucial. Things To Come was originally written as a far more maudlin work, about a woman whose husband leaves her after 25 years together, at a time when her mother is dying, leaving her to consider her own future, career, love life, solitude and mortality. Huppert elected early on to play the role with a far greater lightness of touch than the director, Mia Hansen-Love, had anticipated, finding something almost perversely skittish or amused in her character at times. (Quick aside: Hansen-Love is from the same sort of world as Huppert: bookish, bourgeois, liberated; her father taught philosophy in the school I attended) For Elle, Huppert made herself available for the film from the start, even at a time when Paul Verhoeven was looking to cast other, more famous actors in the role: she clung on in, making the film viable finally because of her suppleness, so that she could play this perverse CEO whose response to her rape is to entrap her rapist in a sexual game of cat-and-mouse. Verhoeven admits that the creation of the character belongs to Huppert, such as a scene where she screamingly evicts someone from her house and continues screaming long after they have left. What we have seen this year is Huppert's decisions, her choices, coming to frame the women she plays: this gives them an added depth, and something off-kilter.
You could not simply say that she is her own auteur now: but something of her accrued experience, of the stories that she has made it her career to choose for forty years, has come to wash off on two of her best, most complex, most playful performances.