ISABELLE HUPPERT: RISK AND REVELATION at Cinematheque Ontario until December 4. See Indie & Rep Film Listings for details. Rating: NNNN
When David O. Russell cast Isabelle Huppert as the rogue philosopher in last year's I Heart Huckabees, he knew what he was doing.
As the mysterious dark lady hovering on the outskirts of the film's existential narrative, Huppert's Caterine Vauban more than lived up to her character's calling card: "Cruelty. Manipulation. Meaninglessness."
All three of those words could apply to the great French actor's rich body of work captured in Cinematheque's month-long retrospective (fresh from the MoMA), concluding this weekend.
In addition to screening Huppert's bravura turn as a young killer in Claude Chabrol 's Violette Nozière (Friday, December 2, 8:45 pm), one of her two 1977 breakout roles (the other being Claude Goretta's The Lacemaker), Cinematheque is showing two other key films that display her wide range: Bertrand Tavernier 's 1981 satire Coup De Torchon (Sunday, December 4, 3:30 pm) and Michael Haneke 's 2001 psychological shocker The Piano Teacher (Saturday, December 3, 8:30 pm).
In Coup De Torchon, Huppert plays Rose, the libidinous young mistress of cuckolded, beleaguered police captain Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) in corruption-ridden colonial 1938 West Africa. When Cordier begins taking the law into his own hands, killing pimps and Rose's own abusive husband, Huppert's cool reaction is chilling.
When Rose climaxes during sex with Cordier after finding out her husband has been killed, her orgasm is so muted it's laugh-inducing. Cordier says, "Must have been the news."
Later, Huppert extracts a watch from her husband's corpse with cool detachment and hardly feigns mourning - she's all chatty and glib - when authorities inform her she's a widow. When her pent-up emotions finally explode, the effect is startling.
One of the main joys of a Huppert performance comes from staring at her seemingly impassive face and waiting for it to express what's happening inside.
Nowhere is this more fully realized than in her Cannes-best-actress-winning turn as a self-destructive Viennese music professor in The Piano Teacher.
Living at home with her demanding mother (Annie Girardot), Erika (Huppert) is straitlaced and severe with her acolyte music students. Control and discipline have built her career, and she applies the same principles to her more private activities, which include mutilating her genitals and frequenting porn booths.
When a young student, Walter (Benoît Magimel), becomes obsessed with her, she tries to control the situation by engaging him in a series of specific sado-masochistic acts. When things get out of control, she suffers a gradual collapse, which unleashes a fury of feelings that touch on incest and rape.
Two of the most remarkable scenes feature little dialogue. In the first, a complex series of emotions play over her face as she listens to Walter's audition recital. Much later, when Walter reads a letter outlining the sadistic things she wants him to do to her, she looks up at him, completely exposed.
I can't think of another actor who could do this as effectively. Certainly there's no one in America who could pull it off.
It's unlikely Huppert - now in her early 50s - will ever win an Oscar. Next year her turn as yet another repressed, stifled woman in Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle comes out, and it won't have many big speeches or extrovert emotions, all things the Academy rewards.
But pay attention to those silences.