Saturday, August 11, 2007

Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces


A few words about the picture-book Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces a cheap copy of which I came across and promptly bought last week. I had once been to exhibition which I think featured the same photographs a couple of years back and saw a couple of movies too at the film festival dedicated to her work. The book in addition to the photographs also collects essays and short appreciations by Elfriede Jelinek, Susan Sontag, Patrice Chereau, the French film director and Serge Toubiana, film scholar and the editor of Cahiers du Cinema. The essays are very brief but quite insightful at places. All of them repeatedly insist on one quality of the photographs: the "absence" of the subject. How she is there in the photographs and yet she is not there and how the photographers face up to this challenge. Toubiana says:

Her energy and strength are sometimes concealed behind a sort of melancholy, opacity, or neutrality--an absence, or a dream of being elsewhere. It is this crack that the greatest photographers have been able to capture, with her complicity. When she comes to let herself go in front of the lens, it is in fact she who is taking control, she who is watching us. [....] To be present in order not to be: That is what this actress seems to be telling us, by constantly playing with appearance and its mechanical repetition.

Susan Sontag lists five qualities that she likes in her: beauty, which she clarifies that she means the Greek beauty rather than the Christian (didn't really understand what she means here, I thought the Christians stole the idea from the Greeks) and also talent for expressive and eloquence, intelligence, fearlessness and integrity, which is again linked to Beauty.

The photographs are great of course. A common theme is indeed what the commentators identify -- absence. This is actually a paradoxical trait in an actress, the ability to hide and also to show, to be frighteningly intense and yet icily detached at the same time. It also works on screen because she chooses roles where she can exploit this same paradox. (It is most obviously in The Piano Teacher.) This is also the reason why the Madame Bovary character played by her becomes a different character than the one in the book. (And to me a more interesting one too. I am not saying anything about the overall adaptation in general.)

Most of her photographs also prominently highlight the frail figure and specially the pale and freckled skin that is her trademark. Sometimes the makeup hides it but it generally remains as it is. It is perhaps again the "absence" factor which de-eroticises most of her photographs, even the ones in which she is without clothes. (There are only a couple.) It is as if she were challenging and then defeating the voyeuristic intrusion of the camera. Overall a very fine collection. Recommended viewing for her fans.

This is a nice profile from village voice and more overview of her work from sight and sound.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I was mainly only aware of Huppert's roles in Haneke films, this helps fill out the picture more. Alok, I'd be interested to hear more about what you do to make money, and how you got into european lit. I now put my lit thoughts at: http://astifter.blogspot.com

Alok said...

I actually write software for a bank. Quite banal actually and I don't make as much money as I should but then it leaves me with enough free time so that I can pursue my hobbies.

Arts and Literature are just hobbies. I never studied literature formally. My academic background is that of engineering. And I don't have any Europe connection either.

jyothsnay said...

Mr Zembla
your blog introduced me to this ethereal & phenomenal actress Isabelle Huppert, a few seasons ago. as i said earlier, she efortlessly, unflinchingly conveys a rich tapestry of emotions, with minimalistic rendition of words, as if she is throwing a challenge to us, the blithers to introduce selves to the situation over there n attempt to grasp the tonality, the clues to which are displayed on the palette!
More than her energy and strength, I delight over the holistic sense of transparency, the fortitude hued with femininity and a streak of intelligence sustained throughout,which is powerful enough to make importunate creatures think of surrendering to the faculties...
her intense determination lives somewhere around the sloping curves of her face and it seemed to alienate the outer world, while her sharply curved lips tremble a decided stress of vulnerability...well, it is the tussle, the conflict that glows on her ...

Alok said...

I will also add the pain, the suffering that she is able to express without seemingly doing anything. and the pain itself is almost inhuman, which can't be assuaged by small things. i also love the expression "melancholy of bitter independence" which i read in some article about her and which i thought was very apt.

chantal sunita said...

i love this post. some very accurate comments - i completely agree. my fave role is La Ceremonie and The Piano Teacher. Wow, intense.

btw, I will be seeing her tomorrow night at the Toronto International Film Festival for her screening of "Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique (The Sea Wall)". I read in the newspaper she will be in attendance!

Alok said...

Oh good... I have seen her in person once but only from a distance. Those two are my favourites too, along with Claude Chabrol's Women's Affairs.