Isabelle Huppert: Agente Provocatrice

The French actress, honoured in Goa, has appeared in over 120 films since her debut in 1971

Isabelle Huppert, that famous French actress with arguably the world’s most enchantingly impassive face, won the IFFI Lifetime Achievement award during IFFI 2019’s inaugural ceremony. I confess, I have watched only two of her movies, and I don’t know how to feel about it. 

But these two movies — ‘The Piano Teacher’, a psychological thriller where she plays a repressed woman with a penchant for masochism, and ‘Elle’, where she plays a rape victim who wants to control the narrative — cannot be seen without marvelling at her ability to play with her face in a way only she can. Going by these two storylines, a viewer would expect a swell of emotion to wash across the character’s face, but not if it’s Isabelle Huppert’s face. 

Her face isn’t one to reflect pain so much as it is one to unblinkingly question your understanding of it, and leave you feeling as though you don’t really understand pain. There is an aloofness and there is an intimacy that coexist harmoniously in that deeply unfathomable face of hers that is quite unlike any other. 

In ‘The Piano Teacher’ (2001), the opening scene shows her having a violent confrontation with her aging mother. She plays a piano teacher who encourages a relationship with a much younger student who has a crush on her. Swaths of emotion are written into every scene, yet what you get is a tranquil façade that betrays no feeling. Other than the rage that’s on display in the opening scene, Huppert’s face remains maddeningly placid, even as she tries to design an affair with her student that borders on the absurd. Or so we think.

In ‘Elle’ (2016), she plays Michele, a woman who is in control of every aspect of her life but for one incident that threatens to take away the control she has over herself. In a minimalist portrayal, Huppert once again frustrates even as she charms with her captivating face. Even as her inner self is likely crumbling from the horrors visited upon her, she remains a cool customer on the surface, carefully planning her next move to catch the man who raped her. Anything that is revealed over this would be tantamount to a disservice to her performance.

And in those 15 years that have passed from 2001 to 2016, small progressions of age are visible on her unbotoxed, au naturel face. A recent conversation I had with a much younger colleague went like this. He said he wanted to write about a babe. I said write about Isabelle Huppert. He said, no, I mean “babe”.

Were she to read this, I suspect that Huppert’s incredibly unreadable face will betray no emotion, but her eyes will likely crinkle into silent laughter, and no one will be any wiser but she and she alone. Which is just as it should be. Not a babe, sure, but you don’t need to be one when you are Agente Provocatrice.

That’s French and female for Agent Provocateur. You’re welcome.

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