Isabelle Huppert: 10 essential films

From The Piano Teacher to Elle: a selection of some of the best performances by one of the world’s most brilliant and formidable actors, Isabelle Huppert.

David Parkinson

Coup de torchon (1981)

Coup de torchon (1981)

Isabelle Huppert is not just courageous when it comes to choosing roles and collaborators. She is fearless, and such is her integrity that we trust her instincts and follow wherever she leads. According to Patrice Chéreau (who directed her in Gabrielle, 2005), Huppert is “intimate and distant, intelligent, cold, burning – and prepared to do anything to act”. She told one interviewer, “I see acting as something that goes on between me and myself,” while she confided to another that performing “is imagination more than observation. I could have been locked in a room all my life and still been an actress.” Maybe that’s why she’s been nominated for a César a record 16 times?

Yet, just as we think we know Huppert (after 46 years and 100+ features), she surprises and unsettles us by relaxing her tightly coiled control and channelling her strength and energy into doing something shockingly impulsive. Aware of her own enigmatic appeal, she has no qualms about exploiting it. She has even less desire to charm, although her formidable impassivity sometimes betrays a hint of vulnerability. Not that she will let the viewer get too close, however, as she is forever intent on remaining “more like a question mark than a statement”.

The Lacemaker (1977)

Director Claude Goretta

The Lacemaker (1977)

As she wittily recalled at the recent BAFTA ceremony, Isabelle Huppert won the most promising newcomer award for her graceful, guileless performance as Pomme in Claude Goretta’s masterly adaptation of a Pascal Lainé novel, which took its title from a Vermeer painting. Whether doing her chores at a Parisian beauty salon, playing blindman’s buff on a Cabourg clifftop with dashing Sorbonne student Yves Beneyton, trying to eat an apple without disturbing his reading or choking over dinner with his snooty parents, Huppert is mesmerising. “I could find myself in the character,” she later stated. But for all the delicacy of her expressions, Huppert reveals most with her final freeze-frame stare.

Violette Nozière (1978)

Director Claude Chabrol

Violette Nozière (1978)

The first of her seven collaborations with Claude Chabrol earned Huppert the best actress prize at Cannes. She was 25 when she played the demure schoolgirl who shocked 1930s Paris when details of her double life as a prostitute emerged following the poisoning of her father. Violette claimed he had abused her, but Chabrol thinks otherwise and exploits Huppert’s genius for switching between fragility and cruelty to counter the surrealist myth that the teenage parricide was an anti-bourgeois icon. Although she would struggle in Madame Bovary (1991), Huppert excelled in costume for Chabrol again in Une affaire de femmes (1988), winning the Volpi Cup at Venice as Marie-Louise Giraud, a housewife-abortionist in occupied Cherbourg.

Loulou (1980)

Director Maurice Pialat

Loulou (1980)

Huppert first caught the critical eye when her truculent teenager was deflowered by petty crook Gérard Depardieu in Bertrand Blier’s picaresque farce Les Valseuses (1974). They were paired again after Maurice Pialat had considered teaming Jacques Dutronc and Miou-Miou in a story that Arlette Langmann had based on her own break-up with the director. Such is the magnetism between Huppert and Depardieu that it’s difficult to believe that the roles of the staid housewife and the boorish rogue she gives up her comfortable existence for were not written specifically for them. Huppert came to specialise in such emotionally conflicted characters, but 35 years would pass before she reunited with Depardieu on Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love.

Coup de torchon (1981)

Director Bertrand Tavernier

Coup de torchon (1981)

Having survived a seven-month stint in Montana for Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), Huppert ventured to Saint-Louis in Senegal for Bertrand Tavernier’s Oscar-nominated transposition of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel, Pop. 1280, from a small Texan town in the 1910s to west Africa on the eve of the Second World War. Although Pierre-William Glenn’s sun-scorched Steadicam imagery seems antithetical, this is a darkly droll noir that sees Huppert in an unusually skittish mood, as the abused colonial wife who forges an unlikely alliance with Philippe Noiret’s rogue cop. She would revisit matters imperial to equally compelling effect in Rithy Panh’s The Sea Wall (2008) and Claire Denis’ White Material (2009).

La Séparation (1994)

Director Christian Vincent

La Séparation (1994)

Critic Pauline Kael was suspicious of Huppert because “when she has an orgasm, it barely ruffles her blank surface”. Yet Huppert considers a flicker of the eyelids to be “a major event” when acting for the camera, as she demonstrated in such unjustly neglected pictures as Cactus (1986), A Woman’s Revenge (1990) and Home (2008). Her distinctive talent for suppressing suffering is readily evident in Christian Vincent’s excruciating study of her slowly disintegrating relationship with Daniel Auteuil, as Huppert imparts chilling intimacy to a withdrawn hand, an unanswering gaze, a treacherous silence and a careless word in conveying the pain of falling out of love. 

La Cérémonie (1995)

Director Claude Chabrol

La Cérémonie (1995)

“Chabrol only ever cast me as fairly ordinary characters,” Huppert once revealed. “They just have rather particular destinies.” While she would go on to embody Chabrolian womanhood (“not victims, not fighters, somewhere in between”) in Rien ne va plus (1997), Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and Comedy of Power (2006), she gave her finest performance for him in this seething adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Exuding a paradoxical free spirit that lurches between the mischievously anarchic and the charismatically psychotic, Huppert thoroughly deserved her first César as the gregarious Breton postmistress who coaxes illiterate maid Sandrine Bonnaire into slaughtering her insouciantly complacent bourgeois employers.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Director Michael Haneke

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Notwithstanding critic Jacques Mandelbaum’s assertion that Huppert’s passion for suffering exhibits “a sadomasochistic stubbornness”, she insists that a good deal of humour (“although I wouldn’t try to persuade anyone this was an out and out comedy”) marbles Michael Haneke’s deeply disturbing reading of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about a mother-plagued Vienna Conservatory tutor whose prim exterior masks the depraved desires that drive her to haunt peep shows, spy on copulating couples and mutilate her own genitals. Huppert declared the second of her four collaborations with Haneke to be the film she had long been searching for: “I think it goes beyond everything I’ve done before.”

8 Women (2002)

Director François Ozon

8 Women (2002)

As Josiane Balasko’s Sac de noeuds (1985), Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994) and Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country (2012) ably demonstrate, there’s no validity in the truism that Huppert doesn’t do comedy. “I’m not often proposed mainstream material,” she concedes, but she proved she can dance and sing (the plaintive ‘Message personnel’ is a career highlight) in François Ozon’s chic 1950s musical whodunit. Sporting a tight bun, a buttoned-up twin-set, pursed red lips and butterfly spectacles, Huppert invokes the spirit of legendary farceur Louis de Funès as Catherine Deneuve’s argumentative sister. She gives an indelible display of neurotic, spinsterly bitchiness that is simultaneously piteous and hilarious.

Things to Come (2016)

Director Mia Hansen-Løve

Things to Come (2016)

This sensitive divorce drama from Mia Hansen-Løve could form a fine Huppert double bill with Joachim Lafosse’s Private Property (2006). Huppert had played Hansen-Løve’s mother in Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées sentimentales (2000), and here in Hansen-Løve’s own film she is perfectly cast as the redoubtable woman who bounces back from personal and professional setbacks. Her character had been inspired by the director’s philosopher mother, who just happened to have taught Huppert’s own daughter, Lolita Chammah. Such was their bond that Huppert accepted more direction than usual and, perhaps as a consequence, she achieved an unexpected blend of perpetual motion and tranquility.

Elle (2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven

Elle (2016)

Having twice coped with Jean-Luc Godard’s unconventional methods, Huppert clearly felt ready for Paul Verhoeven. Yet they rarely felt the need to speak while making this provocative adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel, Oh…, which revisited territory Huppert had explored in Benoît Jacquot’s The School of Flesh (1998). She nearly lost a project she had initiated when Verhoeven tried to shoot it in Hollywood. But, while she called rape victim Michèle Leblanc “a post-feminist heroine”, Huppert was keen to avoid making grand statements in playing a “complete human being [who] is not defined only by rape”. “No role is hard for me,” she explained before being Oscar nominated, but “maybe she means more to me than another role”.

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