At Cannes, this year, I caught the new Ira Sachs film, Frankie. It has Isabelle Huppert in the titular role, and she opens the movie by taking her swimsuit top off at the pool of a resort and diving in. Her disapproving step-granddaughter (it’s a complicated family tree) says there are other people around, and some of them have cameras. Frankie doesn’t care. She simply says, “I am very photogenic.” I laughed, because such confidence is perhaps second nature to the famous actress that Frankie is. And the casting of a famous actress like Huppert brings in a level of meta-ness as well.
Huppert, who is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of India, is a bona fide movie legend. She made her debut in the early 1970s, with actresses like Nathalie Baye and Isabelle Adjani. (She began by playing Student #2 in Faustine et le Bel Été, in 1972). Since then, she has become known for her minimalist style, which is best described in a Financial Times interview from 2017. This is one of those sessions conducted over a meal. The writer watches her observing other people at the restaurant. Huppert says her acting isn’t based on this observation.
But observation “gives me one clue, essentially that I need to do less. Fiction tends to inflate everything. Observation pushes you to subtract, rather than to add.” Rarely has Huppert “subtracted” more than in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2001 and is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Like the book, the film opens with a fight between the protagonist Erika and her domineering mother. It’s a physical fight. Erika ends up ripping out some of her mother’s hair. But soon after, she is distraught. She apologises. They go to sleep…
…together, in Erika’s parents’ bed. “Disturbed” is a mild way of describing this relationship, and Erika — but thanks to Huppert, the hysteria is dialled down to nearly zero. Yes, in the argument with her mother, she screams, but otherwise, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on behind that placid exterior. One of Haneke’s conditions for doing the film was that Huppert would play Erika. He said, in a 2001 interview to austrianfilms.com, “She has on the one hand the sensitivity and ability to show suffering and on the other this character’s cold-bloodedness…”
Sensitivity and cold-bloodedness. Those, to me, are the key words in Haneke’s appraisal of Huppert, and to see why, consider the scene from The Piano Teacher that occurs after a student (Walter, played by Benoît Magimel) falls for Erika and discovers that she is not in love with him — at least not in the romantic way he thinks of the emotion. Her way involves what some might call sadomasochism. She writes him a letter that details the things she would like done to her, in the name of love. Sample statement: “Hit me around the face and hit me hard.”
Walter reads the letter and falls silent. Erika says, “Do I disgust you? The urge to be beaten has been in me for years. I waited for you, you know? It’s not a joke, all I wrote. You know that. From now on, you give the orders.” She goes to her closet and opens the door, revealing her clothes. “From now on, you choose what I am to wear. What colour do you prefer? You never said.” Walter is appalled. He judges her. He says, “You’re sick. You need treatment… I swear I loved you. You don’t even know what it is. Right now, you repulse me.”
Huppert’s triumph, then, is to make us see that Erika isn’t “sick”. She’s just her own person. Look at how Huppert performs in the stretch where Erika pulls out a cardboard box from under her bed and displays its contents to Walter. Ropes. Chains. A mask of some kind. A clamp of some kind. We only see her from the back. Even so, we get a glimpse of the contradictory qualities Haneke spoke about: sensitivity and cold-bloodedness.
We sense that’s Erika is going through something, revealing herself this way. We also sense the… inhuman quality of what she is going through. She’s like a cat that brings a dead mouse home and drops it at your feet. (Indeed, in this stretch, all we see of Walter are his legs, from below the knees.) This is not a “warm” portrayal of a psychotic condition. It doesn’t invite sympathy. It doesn’t say, “I am broken. Please heal me.” It’s just what it is. Erika is just who she is.
In a 2018 interview in Independent, Huppert said she doesn’t play roles or characters. “I play states of mind… character is a perception for whoever sees the film but not for myself. I don’t play a character. I just play an encounter between me and certain states of mind.” That’s exactly what this scene from The Piano Teacher is, a certain state of mind — and in 2016, Huppert would revisit a similar state of mind in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. She plays a rape victim. Only, she doesn’t see herself as a “victim”.
Verhoeven told Slant magazine, “We discussed the choreography of scenes, but we never discussed character psychology or anything. I let her go. I let her go even if she continued scenes way beyond the point where it was supposed to stop. She would go on and on, and I let her go, and I used it all in the movie. What she did was better than was in the book, the script, in my head, and I accepted it immediately. Her intuition and talent is of such a high level. I realized she knew more as a woman about how this woman would feel than I.”
Huppert feels Erika strongly in The Piano Teacher. Through her performance, she asks the questions Jelinek asks in her novel. Is a woman only expected to bear children and tend to home and hearth? Is she not permitted to choose a man and dictate how he tortures her? Most films, most actors want us to take sides — but neither Haneke nor Huppert are interested in evoking “feeling”. This is who Erika is. This is who the rape victim in Elle is. This is who Isabelle Huppert is.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 14:21:19 IST