The Art of Dying

Isabelle Huppert brings suicide to life in Sarah Kane's final play

 LOS ANGELES—Isabelle Huppert descends into the lobby of the W Hotel in Westwood with a subtlety that seems the very definition of stealth. Discretion marks her every move. In a town where traveling incognito translates into Fendi sunglasses and black SUVs with tinted windows, there's something truly phantom-like about her whisk past the reception desk. Could this feline presence really be one of the most acclaimed contemporary actresses in French cinema, a woman whose portrait has been taken by every major European and American photographer, and who's currently touring in what is undeniably a daring U.S. stage debut?

For an actress who prides herself on her ability "to be there and not be there" (a "little secret," she calls it), Huppert seems to be everywhere at the moment, even if takes a certain sensibility to notice. Currently appearing in Sarah Kane's final play before her suicide, 4:48 Psychosis (at BAM's Harvey Theater October 19 through 30), she's also the subject of a MOMA film retrospective (October 17 through November 23) and a P.S.1 photo exhibit, "Woman of Many Faces" (October 23 through December 5), whose title refers to a newly published book of Huppert portraits, with essays by Elfriede Jelinek, Patrice Chéreau, and Susan Sontag.

As unconventional as Huppert's body of work tends to be, the Kane play—a suicide note composed in highly wrought poetic fragments—sets a new precedent. Performed in French (under the title 4:48 Psychose), with sparing use of supertitles, the production, seen in its American debut at UCLA Live, features the actress standing rigidly before us, fists lightly clenched, in black leather pants, electric-blue T-shirt, and little if any makeup. A male actor, dressed in orange and red and often appearing to be her doctor, lurks behind a scrim and occasionally exchanges cryptic dialogue with her. The dramatic action consists entirely of her delivering—embodying would be a more accurate description—the lyrical shards of a writer determined to unsentimentally record the rationale and regrets of her last days.

"There is no situation, no character, none of the ingredients you normally expect to find," Huppert says. "There's hardly a play in the usual sense. But [Kane's] writing is so powerful and so structured. It's poetic in a way that borders many different genres of poetry—rock 'n' roll, classical. One minute it's contemporary, the next almost like a sonnet by Shakespeare."

Don't expect the masses to storm BAM's gates for a ticket. The play's minimalist form is as stark as its vision. New Yorkers, too, may be shaking their heads in déjà vu. Wasn't there a highly praised production of the play last season in Brooklyn? Indeed there was, at St. Ann's Warehouse, directed by the Royal Court's James Macdonald, who recast his original London production with local actors for the American premiere.

Claude Régy's French production reveals the flexibility of Kane's seemingly intractable text. While Macdonald's version divided up the work among his three actors (and their reflections in a giant mirror angled above them) to reveal an abstract pattern of despairing consciousness, Régy keeps the focus on Huppert, whose demeanor is spookily akin to the playwright's (at least in my faint recollection of her). The result, remarkably, is not an exploitative case of postmortem biography, but something darkly philosophical: a rejection of life that cannot be fobbed off with a psychiatric diagnosis or a prescription for Prozac.

Huppert sees the existential reach of the play transcending Kane's personal story. "OK, she did what she did and died the way she died," she says. "But the work is detached from her destiny. It's a work of art in itself, not an anecdotal account of her death. I don't feel like I literally play Sarah Kane. I play a play about death, about suicide, about desire for life, about how wrong our world is, how difficult it is to live and love. The playwright comes up to a universal level that allows you to forget about what she did. In fact, I think it's a better way to pay her homage."

These days many people seem to want to pay homage to Huppert as well. In addition to cataloging the protean nature of her seductive appeal, the book version of Woman of Many Faces includes Sontag's 2003 essay in which she enumerates five of Huppert's distinguishing qualities—beauty, expressiveness, intelligence, risk taking, and integrity. Not a bad start, yet there's something beyond these general attributes that makes Huppert compulsively watchable. Her face contains a paradox: The eyes bear witness to emotional extremes, yet the mouth withholds the scream. Intensity and detachment coexist within her. Nowhere is this more hypnotically evident than in The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke's film of Jelinek's novel about a ruthlessly sadistic classical-piano instructor given to sexual and at times self-mutilating bouts of masochism.

Does she have a penchant for characters living on the psychological edge? Huppert says her choice of roles, "while not entirely a choice—you have to select from what you are offered," is instinctive and nothing that she theorizes about in advance. But she says she has a "repulsion" for a certain overwrought style of acting that she finds dominant today. "If I seem detached or distant, it's because I think this is a more exact reproduction of life, where you hide as much as you show. When I see a scene in which feelings get loudly exteriorized, I say to myself, 'Well, at least this never happens to me.' I very rarely go through this type of expression. Most of the time things are hidden or at least much more subdued."

Chéreau, who directed Huppert in his new film Gabrielle, a two-character drama adapted from a story about a loveless marriage by Joseph Conrad, describes his star as "a storm in a void." "Isabelle Huppert is both intimate and distant, intelligent, cold, burning—and prepared to do anything to act," he writes. "She gives herself to others while at the same time is absent; she is solitary and multiple in nature."

Of course there's another reason why auteurs like Chéreau can't resist Huppert: She's an unabashed formalist, attracted to projects that move beyond straightforward psychological narratives into new modes of storytelling. Her career, routinely finding room for experimental theater amid so many intriguing movies, reveals her to be as comfortable in Robert Wilson's choreographic staging of Orlando as she is in David O. Russell's jaunty philosophical farce I ? Huckabees.

"Many people don't realize that it's in what you think are the limitations of a certain form that you can often find your own rhythm and space," she says. "I would never be able to do what I'm doing in a classical production, because in a classical staging, while you might think you're free, you're not. You're submitting to convention, to something totally arbitrary. In Régy's production, it's the contrary: Because of the form, you can fly. I experienced this for the first time onstage with Bob Wilson. With him it's such a mathematical space, with such precise regulations, and yet I never felt so much myself."

The notion of a dangerously depressed writer—in and out of hospitals, bombarded with doctors and drugs—revealing herself not through a tell-all memoir but through the rigor of dramatic poetry was a powerful inducement for Huppert to bring this celebrated Parisian production to America, despite the language barrier, the recent Royal Court production, and the limited audience for such noncommercial work.

As for the difficult subject matter, Huppert sees it as not simply bleak. "The attraction to death is the reverse of this incredible hunger for life," she observes. "It's an awareness of how difficult it is to fulfill the desire for life. The play constantly plays on these contradictions, which is why I like this idea of dying standing, because in a way that's what she does: She dies alive."

For tickets to 4:48 Psychose call 718-636-4100 or visit BAM.org

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