BBC - Mark Kermode's film blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

Isabelle Huppert has the right material

Post categories:

Mark Kermode | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 13 July 2010

With two of her films on release there is no better time to recognise the extraordinary talent of this exquisitely sophisticated actor.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.


  • Comment number 1.

    She was indeed stunning in the Piano Player, giving this strong woman vibe even while she's hurting herself in so many ways. Yay for real acting!

  • Comment number 2.

    I am very much looking forward to seeing White Material. What is it about french actors and actresses that gives them such presence and gravitas?

  • Comment number 3.

    I think its the mistique of another culture, myself; the sheer unknowability. No matter how well acquainted you become with a foreign culture, there is always something delightfully alien about it that defies definition. Historically speaking, the French are as close to being our kin as anyone could be (think of the 12th and 13th centuries, where parts of England were literally French territory and vice versa) and yet we are still hidden in some way from one another.

    I think actors are just as confounded by the quality of 'proper acting' as critics...there is something intangible, which can never, never be empirically measured, that essence of quality which changes from instant to instant whether it comes from within or outside there is a point where you just have to say, for whatever reason, 'that speaks to me'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Might I note that her subsequent role after the Piano Player was the hysterical Augustine in 8 Women, talk about doing a complete 180. And, of course, she was brilliant. So was the rest of the film, one of my favorites of 2002 and indeed ever.

  • Comment number 5.

    Am completely with you on Heaven's Gate Mark, it is an atrocious piece of self-indulgent, flatulent dreck.

    A while ago I found a review you wrote of The Deer Hunter for the Film4 website; I really liked it but now that the Film4 website has been rebranded it's been taken down and I can't find it anywhere. Perhaps, considering this is the 30th anniversary of Heaven's Gate, you could do a blog on Michael Cimino, explaining your reasons for hatred of said film and of Cimino. After all, he can't be all bad - he co-wrote Silent Running :P

  • Comment number 6.

    I heart Isabelle Huppert in Hal Hartley's 'Amateur'

  • Comment number 7.

    I think you are right about the mystique element. Also, not to belittle their outstanding acting skills, they are also amazing to look at. Not just in a classical sense either, rugged faces like those of Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu have an amazing quality, they truly look as if they have lived life to the full which in turn makes us believe everything that they portray on film.
    I think that this goes some way to explaining what Mark meant when he said Isabelle Huppert looks as if she has stared into the abyss. This ability to convey emotion with just a look is something that most quality French actors possess.

  • Comment number 8.

    thank you Dr. K! I have never seen the work of Ms Huppert but i shall now give it a try!

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't think I have seen any of her films, there will be a determination to change that now.

    @Marge: Ive always thought that the French language has a lyrical quality that lends well to acting, there is a beauty in its delivery. Im not implying that's an answer to your query, just thought id say one reason why Im drawn in by French actors.

    Regarding what Dr.K said about "Proper" acting: It reminded me of what the philosopher Wiggenstien said: Sometimes a concepts meaning cannot be explained, only shown.

  • Comment number 10.

    Check out her role as the philosophising femme fatale (damn, now I wish I could think of more eph words) in I Heart Huckabees. A movie that I only watched recently and which served as a refreshing tonic after watching Burton's Alice which left me feeling very underwhelmed.

    I agree with Mark, one of the outstanding characteristics of Huppert is her "stillness" as an actress. She does nothing and she does it so well.

  • Comment number 11.

    Mark, your comments on Huppert reminded me of a quote by De Niro.

    "It's important not to indicate. People don't try to show their feelings, they try to hide them."

    It really rings true for me. I think it's the mark of a good actor if they allow you to guess what imaginary inner life the character is experiencing instead of having it writ-large across their face. Bill Murray appears to have rebuilt his acting career using this approach.

  • Comment number 12.

    I went to see Villa Amalia with a group of friends and the result was very interesting. The women in the group felt they could really connect with Huppert's character, whereas the men found her impenetrable veneer to be infuriating. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not an easy film, but a perfect match for Huppert.

  • Comment number 13.

    oh and that quote is spot on, Andy

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't remember seeing her in anything but I have seen a couple of the films mentioned. I am therefore unable to comment on her acting ability. However the clips you played brought to mind something else and that's trying to appreciate an actor’s performance while reading subtitles.

    Is it possible to truly praise (or criticise) an actors performance if during the dialogue you're looking at the bottom of the screen? Obviously there's no alternative (unless you learn the language) but it’s something that comes to mind.

  • Comment number 15.

    This all brings to mind Jason Isaacs' piercingly accurate observation about actors and glasses in last week's 5-live show - wonderful stuff.
    It's still downloadable if you hurry...

  • Comment number 16.

    Ooh good, two more movies I'll probably never get to see.

    Huppert's performance in The Piano Teacher is one of the greatest ever put on film, bar nothing; I remember seeing her in that movie before even having a name to put to a face and just being completely blown away in every conceivable manner. The movie was fine too, of course, but put any other actress in that role and it just wouldn't be the same.
    There's something low-key about her that... I don't know, forces the audience to come to her instead of the other way around I guess. You find yourself leaning forward, trying to catch every detail and actually participating rather than watching in the more usual, impassive way. It's a presence that can't be described in a tangible way - just some people have it and some don't, but she's got it the most.

    Absolutely love this blog entry and yeah, Heaven's Gate is an overindulgent mess.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hand on heart I've seen La Huppert in very few films, though Mark you have in your short and rather intriguing presentation certainly persuaded me to redress that. I do recall seeing her in a fairly run of the mill 80's thriller called The Bedroom Window with none other than Steve Guttenberg. La Huppert looked uncomfortable, mainly because she was miscast .However she has that presence on screen that is captivating,though you couldn't pin it down to just one quality really, but if you could bottle it......Badda Bing.

  • Comment number 18.

    My favourite Isabelle Huppert performance, not already mentioned, is in Maurice Pialat's typically meandering though rigorously performed film Loulou (1980), where she plays a woman in the process of abandoning her bourgeois but successful lover for a life with a roguish layabout. Well worth seeing for its career-best performances from Huppert, Guy Marchand and Gérard Depardieu.

  • Comment number 19.

    I must say Villa Amalia is one of the most interesting films I have seen Isabelle in. It's something like the fifth collaboration with director Benoît Jacquot and you can really tell. They have an inept way of working together - something unique about their relationship is transferred to the screen. You can tell Isabelle really loved the role and found it challenging one to play - I think she handles it well and whilst it might be easier for women to connect with the character it's certainly a film that everyone should see.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mark, are you saying that Richard Gere isn't a proper actor? Beccause that's what it sounds like to me. Tut tut, I hear the *blink blink* *sigh* of a painful realisation.

  • Comment number 21.

    d'accord, mark

  • Comment number 22.

    There is something about women who have reddish hair and pale, freckled faces. Think about all these close-ups of Liv Ullmann's face in Bergman's films. Same thing with Isabelle Huppert.

    When I watch them on the screen, I often wait for the moments, when their blank stares turn straight to the lense, making eye contact with the viewer, reminding him that there's something else in the room. Mainly - the void.

  • Comment number 23.

    @ Jason Bradbury - just a friendly suggestion that you might want to look up the meaning of the word "inept".

    @ krzysztof - and who can forget that other great actress with reddish hair and a pale, freckled face - Sissy Spacek.

  • Comment number 24.

    @ davidcronenbergsdog - I had totally forgotten she was in that very under-appreciated film, playing a nymphomaniac virgin nun, if memory serves?

    Anyone else embarrassed themselves by refering to the wonderful French actress by pronouncing the 'T' at the end of her name? It wasn't until only a few years ago when giving someone a DVD of The Piano Teacher as a present and I made the shameful error!

  • Comment number 25.

    My favourite actress of all time is Liv Ullman. I can see a lot of parallels between the two of them.

  • Comment number 26.

    The Piano Teacher is one of those films you keep planning to watch but never do anything about. I admit I'm unfamiliar with Huppert's work, but after watching this I really feel I should get my ass out of the couch and go and see if I can't find a copy of The Piano Teacher and start familiarizing myself with her work.

  • Comment number 27.

    *Slightly* off-topic here, but did anyone ever see Haneke's "the Seventh Continent"? Talk about not revealing your character's motivations! :-)

    p.s. I did like it incidentally, although I'm not sure I'd exactly recommend it, except for maybe the secret goth/emo in you :-)

  • Comment number 28.

    Defending Jennifer Aniston is a little inappropriate when responding to your showcase of a more daring actress's talents, but I've seen your rants about the poor girl's face on the site and as a new member here's my chance to defend her in one instance. There does happen to be a film called "The Good Girl" from 2002 written by Mike White (Chuck & Buck), which does give Aniston an actual character to play in the title role. She becomes a smaller person as opposed to the cheeks and teeth lady that we often see.
    I really do recommend that you check it out. And if you aren't swayed by her performance, the movie still has very good character turns from early Jake Gyllenhaal and Zooey Deschanel as well as a contemplative direction of MIke White's observant script.
    Give the "Girl" a chance and don't be fooled by the misleading DVD cover.

  • Comment number 29.

    I actually think Heaven's Gate is better than most films of the last decade to be honest. Especially coming at the end of the whole "New Hollywood" era, it was nice to see a beautifully photographed and well acted epic as opposed to some of the more self-indulgent films of the decade preceeding it (there is only so much drug-induced *expletive deleted* one can take). Plus Kris Kristofferson was a likeable leading man, one the very few performances of his I can really stomach...the others being Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind and Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. As for Huppert, she is fine but never really did anything for me other than that.

  • Comment number 30.

    Great, a favourite topic.

    Huppert is, as Mark suggests, quite enigmatic. My experience is that for every great performance she also gives a less good one.

    It's difficult to work out why. White Material is a fine film, and she transforms the difficult The Piano Teacher; the directors Claire Denis and Michael Haneke are super filmmakers... but then Haneke made Le Temps de Loup with Huppert, one of his weakest in which she was anonymous.

    Claude Chabrol is another with whom she has had mixed results. La Cérémonie is a terrific Hitchcock-style comedy but Merci Pour le Chocolat (& also imho, Madame Bovary) are dead-dull.

    I've really enjoyed The Lacemaker, Amateur & the impeccable, corruscating La Séparation. It's clear that Heaven's Gate is a bit mangled but despite the arguments on this thread, do go and see it for Huppert if nothing else; it's a terrific performance of irreducible Gallic vulnerability & pride perfectly capturing the pioneering spirit of the character. Cimino was right to hold out for her.

    I would warn against the American ventures though. The Bedroom Window wanders and I Heart Huckabees works with a very specific sense of American postmodern irony that I fear Huppert, for all her 'exquisite sophistication' finds a little alien.

  • Comment number 31.

    I've never heard of Isabelle Huppert, nor have I seen any of her films. However, whereas before I'd probably dismiss these two mentioned films as arty dross, as I'm getting older my movie tastes are broadening. I'm no longer "afraid" of subtitles. So who knows, maybe I will see one of her films eventually. Perhaps they'll appear on BBC Four.

    PS: Thanks Mark for introducing me to Pan's Labyrinth, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Let the Right One In. Much obliged.

  • Comment number 32.

    Saw 'Le Temps du Loup' (bilingual, baby) and can't recall her performance being particularly stunning, can't actually remember her at all.

    What's her most accessible/best film? Hope her most accessible is her best, haven't got the time to watch two.

    A little of topic, I am enjoying French films at the moment though, watched 'Les Herbes Folles' last night which I thought was pretty good. The advocating of persistent (borderline sociopathic) courting of a lady, quite a funny concept - though not the stuff of 'great' cinema.

    French cinema, best cinema in Europe? Opinion mostly based on a complete ignorance of other countries' film industries beyond 'Pan's Labyrinth' and 'The Orphanage' etc.

  • Comment number 33.


    Glad to hear you're getting into some foreign films. If you liked Pan's Labyrinth you might want to check out The Spirit of the Beehive. It's a Spanish film about a little girl's obsession with Frankenstein's monster, and has similar feel to Pan's Labyrinth's mix of fantasy and reality. Also try del Toro's other films, specifically Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, if you haven't seen them already.

  • Comment number 34.

    Clever directors, casting and writers can bring a performance of depth out of many different types of actors. Tom Cruise is a hollow ball of frenetic mannerisms and delusional self-belief - but he is was also excellent as a sociapath in 'Collatoral' and 'Minority Report'. Jennifer Anniston is a rent-a-face bankable hair-commercial A-lister who would do a romantic comedy about Darfur if you paid her enough, yet she was excellent as lost, depressed, serial liars in 'Derailed' and 'Good Girl'. Isabelle Hupert has got better at choosing which films to accept, as she ages and discovers what sorts of roles she can perform convincingly. The depth in her eyes and expression will have developed over the years too and it certainly sounds like she's had plenty of practice, thereby giving her more life experience and versatility to draw on. She also started from the base of the Parisian stage, not exactly a forgiving environment for light-weight actors, considering the types of writers and philosophers that tend to find fame in that arts scene. It's not difficult to see why some actors don't develop much when you compare careers and lifestyles.

  • Comment number 35.

    Yes The Devil's Backbone is a great movie.

    As a newbie to the delights of subtitled movies, you might also want to check out the french thriller "Tell No One", the German political drama "The Lives of Others" and the South African "Tsotsi" all superb movies.

  • Comment number 36.

    Would just like to ask the good Dr K, how do you watch a film? I know you say you like to watch films at the cinema rather than at home but does this afford you the opportunity to make notes? You seem to have the memory of an elephant.

  • Comment number 37.


    Try The Spirit of the Beehive if you haven't already! I would say it has a big influence on both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.

    I thought Tell No One was just okay but I really liked The Lives of Others. Haven't seen Tsotsi, could you tell me anything more about it?

    You might also try La Haine, Man on the Train, Revanche, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Nobody Knows, and Silent Light.

    As for Huppert, I've only seen her in The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf. She was wonderful in The Piano Teacher and good in Time of the Wolf, but as someone already mentioned, that movie is ice cold.

  • Comment number 38.

    Bah, Time of the Wolf is alright. It's not Haneke's greatest and Huppert isn't so prominent, but it's a good watch if somewhat minimalist. I haven't seen all of the Huppert/Chabrol collabs, but add to the appreciation for La ceremonie, which is an excellent film, and also Francois Ozon's 8 Women, where Huppert gives the funniest performance of the cast (which also includes the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Beart).

    But really I'm just posting again because somebody mentioned Spirit of the Beehive. If you haven't seen Spirit of the Beehive, oh my goodness watch Spirit of the Beehive. Such a great film.

  • Comment number 39.


    Thanks, I've heard of both 'Cronos', and 'The Devil's Backbone' but never got around to seeing them. I'm sure they'll end up on TV again eventually.


    Thanks for the suggestions. I caught a bit of 'Tell No-one' on TV the other day, but didn't watch much of it. As I recall Mark liked 'Tell No-one' (despite it's usage of a U2 track!), so it can't be bad!

    My main concern regarding subtitles is that if they're not done well, they can detract from the film. For example, the grammar, spelling has to be pretty much perfect for me to forget the subtitles and engage with the story. All those films I mentioned in my first post meet those standards.

  • Comment number 40.

    Hi @bobboxx
    my suggestions were aimed more at I_am_I but Tsotsi is a marvellous movie about a young gang member in Johannesburg who finds redemption after stealing a car and finding a baby inside. He takes the baby back to his slum shack for a week and slowly becomes more humanised by it. It's very moving and brilliantly acted, give it a go.

    Will definitely add Spirit of the Beehive to my rental list, thanks!

  • Comment number 41.

    You should watch the whole of Tell No-One
    I can also recommend Au Revoir Les Enfants, a true classic!

  • Comment number 42.

    I got to know Hupperts work through he Claude Chabrol films as he is one of my favourite directors.
    Her performances in The Piano Teacher,Le Cerimonie,The Comedy of Power,and Violette are all outstanding she never overacts or overemotes she just is and thats the best thing about her .
    It seems French Actresses seem to have this quality IE Juliette Binoche,Stephanie Audran,and so on and so on

  • Comment number 43.

    Richard Gere isn't inconsistant, he's chronically poor and relatively talentless; Hollywood is generally 99.9999% inconsistent.

    Huppert is a great actress but more often than not soulless and cold, how about Irene Jacob?

  • Comment number 44.

    I'm surprised noone has yet mentioned La Dentelliere - The Lacemaker. Her performance was mesmerising.

  • Comment number 45.

    I agree with Miracle Mile that “Amateur” is under-appreciated, as are Hal Hartley’s films in general and this film is a particular favourite of mine. I think that Isabelle Huppert’s performance displays all the qualities you talked about and helps give some sense of realism to a fairly preposterous role, ex-nun and would be nymphomaniac and pornographic writer. For me it’s feel is more European than American with the advantage that you don’t need subtitles. Although as with some other Hal Hartley films you sometimes wonder if you are watching a play using film to escape the theatre.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.