A Beginner's Guide To Isabelle Huppert

Here's what you should know about the Best Actress nominee.

If anyone scores Best Actress over front-runner Emma Stone at Sunday’s Oscars, it’ll probably be 63-year-old “Elle” star Isabelle Huppert. For some at home, it would make for the night’s most exciting moment. For others, it’ll incite a shrug and a big ol’ “Who?!” 

If you’re in the latter camp, I’m here to help. It’s high time you know that Isabelle Huppert is a certified legend. 

She’s France’s most decorated actress.

Huppert has more nominations (16) from the César Awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, than any other actress. (One more and she’ll tie record holder Gérard Depardieu, her co-star from 1974’s “Going Places,” 1980’s “Loulou” and 2015’s “Valley of Love.”) Phrased differently, Huppert is France’s Meryl Streep. 

Really, Huppert and Streep have little in common apart from their prestige. Where Streep often plays outsized characters, Huppert is an actress of small proportions ― her performances are relatively restrained, even minimalistic. Roger Ebert described her characters as “repressed, closed-off, sexually alert women” who are “not safe to scorn.” 

Despite her 45-year movie career and 46-year theater career, this is Huppert’s first Oscar nomination. For fans, a win would double as a de facto lifetime achievement recognition. 

“Doing movies for me is like a vacation,” Huppert said in 2014. “Stage for me is like climbing a big mountain, and movies for me is like doing a nice little walk.”

Isabelle Huppert stars in a scene from 2016's "Elle."
Isabelle Huppert stars in a scene from 2016's "Elle."

One of her movies caused a minor firestorm last year.

In “Elle,” Huppert plays a video-game executive who refuses to grieve after being raped in the film’s opening scene. Instead, she turns the assault into a game of cat and mouse, luring her attacker into a seductive power play. That’s angered some critics and moviegoers, particularly women, who feel the character’s response is a disservice to rape victims. Huppert disagrees. 

“She does not fall into the caricature of the classical vengeful woman taking the gun and shooting the guy, the James Bond type,” Huppert told me last October during the New York Film Festival. “Maybe that’s what certain persons would expect from her, but then that would follow precisely a male pattern. That’s why I would call her a postfeminist character, making her own way. ... In a way, it is a revenge film. ... It’s like giving birth to a new prototype of a woman. Of course it’s a fiction character and it’s certainly not someone you would meet walking in the subway, meaning it’s not a completely realistic character. But it’s a very, very special character. Even in fiction, you’ve never seen someone like her.”

Huppert is even more subdued in her second movie of 2016, “Things to Come,” portraying a philosopher facing professional setbacks and an impending divorce. 

“As a performer, it’s my natural instinct to put this kind of irony, no matter what I do,” she said when discussing the film. “It certainly also avoids any sentimentality or sentimentalism or psychological heaviness.” 

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson star in a scene from 1980's "Heaven's Gate."
Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson star in a scene from 1980's "Heaven's Gate."

She’s worked with great directors on both sides of the pond. 

For “Elle,” Huppert partnered with Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch shlock master known for “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” Verhoeven is the latest in a long line of veteran filmmakers who have sought out Huppert’s enigmatic screen presence. 

Early in her career, Huppert was associated with masters of the French New Wave, a group of socially conscious filmmakers who introduced open-ended narrative structures and radical techniques in the 1950s and ‘60s. After breaking out with 1977’s “The Lacemaker,” which earned her BAFTA’s Most Promising Newcomer prize, Huppert won the Cannes Film Festival’s best actress accolade for playing a nefarious 18-year-old sex worker in “Violette Nozière.” That marked the first of Huppert’s seven collaborations with director Claude Chabrol, a father of the French New Wave movement. 

Huppert would soon work with Jean-Luc Godard, another French New Wave pioneer, on 1980’s “Every Man for Himself” and 1982’s “Passion.” In between, Huppert’s American debut, the nearly four-hour western “Heaven’s Gate,” became one of the most controversial projects of all time when it effectively bankrupted United Artists. Hot off the Oscar-winning Vietnam War epic “The Deer Hunter,” director Michael Cimino insisted on casting Huppert despite studio executives’ protests that she was “too French” and “simply wrong.” In his 1999 book about the “Heaven’s Gate” debacle, former United Artists honcho Stephen Bach wrote that he told Cimino, “For Christ’s sake, Michael. [Kris Kristofferson] and [Christopher Walken] are so much more attractive than she is that the audience will spend the entire film wondering why they’re fucking her instead of each other!” Cimino then run amok with the budget, calling for elaborate set designs and extensive reshoots. The movie bombed, earning $3.5 million domestically off an estimated $44 million budget. Suffering financial loss as a result, UA was sold to a private investment corporation and acquired by MGM in 1981.

The 1987 drama “Story of Women” is one of Huppert’s most distinguished performances. The movie, a favorite of John Waters, tells the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud, a meager housewife who was guillotined in Nazi-occupied France for performing abortions. It earned a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Language Film, and Huppert picked up the Venice Film Festival’s best actress honor.

In 1995, after seven losses, Huppert won her first ― and, to date, only ― César Award, for the Chabrol-directed crime mystery “La Cérémonie.” The true story on which it’s based ― two maids who murdered their employer in 1933 France ― was also the source of a 1947 play by Jean Genet, a 2013 revival of which starred Huppert, Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Debicki.

The 2000s and 2010s have brought about some of Huppert’s most acclaimed parts, namely Michael Haneke’s erotic thriller “The Piano Teacher” (often cited as her finest performance), David O. Russell’s quirky existential dramedy “I Heart Huckabees,” and supporting spots in Haneke’s old-age romance “Amour” and Ned Benson’s dual-perspective relationship drama “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” 

She also starred on an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.”

Playing a mother whose kidnapped son dies, Huppert goes bonkers on Mariska Hargitay. Exemplifying America’s disregard, NBC’s promo for the 2010 episode touts Sharon Stone as a guest star, but not Huppert.

We don’t know much about Huppert’s personal life.

Here’s something else Huppert has in common with Meryl Streep: Both have children from long marriages ― Huppert’s dates back to 1982, and Streep’s to 1978. Beyond that, we don’t know a ton of gossip about either, which contributes to their indestructible statures in the film world. 

Huppert has three children, including actress Lolita Chammah. They starred together in the 2010 comedy “Copacabana.” Her husband, the Lebanon-born Ronald Chammah, directed Huppert in 1988’s “Milan Noir.”

Critical appraisals have always been glowing, often noting her alluring inscrutability as an actress.

“As in everything else she is called upon to do in this film, Isabelle Huppert shows herself to be a superb actress, able to convey in every gesture, in every utterance and facial expression, that special combination of passivity and violence that is the essential mark of Violette’s personality. So persuasive is her performance of this role that even in those moments when she is most nakedly wicked, she continues to puzzle and even enchant us with her air of innocence and indifference.” ― The New York Times, on “Violette Nozière” (1978)

“It is the unique ability of Isabelle Huppert to betray almost nothing to the camera, when she chooses to. Some of the best moments in her performances come when she regards the camera as if daring us to guess what she is thinking.” ― Robert Ebert, on “Story of Women” (1990)

“Like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Huppert isn’t afraid to play nasty, unattractive women, and she doesn’t balance her character’s evil with sympathetic, mitigating qualities that would make us pity her. ... Even as the film builds to a shocking, kick-in-the-guts finale, Huppert never shirks from her sinister goal, never betrays a glimmer of goodness.” ― The San Francisco Chronicle, on “La Cérémonie” (1997)

“Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her career as Professor Erika Kohut, a distinguished piano teacher and Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. She is brilliant, demanding, unsmiling.” ― The Guardian, on “The Piano Teacher” (2001)

“This makes Pascale yet another choice role for Ms. Huppert, a hypnotically controlled actress who has become more implacably mysterious as she has gotten older. Her characters never plead for our sympathy or understanding. ... She remains one of the most sensual and erotic presences in the cinema, despite a persistent inscrutability of expression.” ― The New York Observer, on “Private Property” (2007)

“One of the most daring and assured of film actresses, Huppert embraces the aloneness, foreignness and impudence of her characters.” ― The Los Angeles Times, on “In Another Country” (2013)

“Though she appears in the fewest scenes, Isabelle Huppert provides the movie with its emotional foundation. ... After a prolonged discussion of her troubled double-life, the director cuts to an extreme close-up of her face and holds the shot for close to half a minute, the ambiguity registering on her face speaking volumes about the speculative nature of the plot.” ― IndieWire, on “Louder Than Bombs” (2015)

“To follow the arc described by Isabelle Huppert, for instance, from her breakout role, in ‘The Lacemaker’ (1977), to her new movie, ‘Elle,’ is to ask yourself, year after year, how someone so at ease with the blazing extremes of emotion can also prove so adept at preserving her cool. It is as if she were guarding secrets that no plot can plumb. Who else can match that mystery?” ― The New Yorker, on “Elle” (2016)

She’s meme-worthy.

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