“There was no real border,” Isabelle Huppert says of her new film, The Piano Teacher, “between the movie as we made it and life.”
Ain’t it the truth. I couldn’t have guessed, but my first experience of Huppert would commence a lifelong beguilement—I was 15, she was 19, the occasion a cable-TV showing of Bertrand Blier’s two-year-old Going Places (1974). Cobalt eyes a wisp too large and alert for that softly angled face, freckles that emerge and vanish like a chameleon’s camouflage, the custardy voice ringing on its edges with a Waterford chirp. The j’accuse glare, the pout, the flawless body of a sprite, the incisive intelligence (could she ever play a dope?), the complements of utter sensibleness and idealized-summer-morning sexual radiance. We all parallel-age with a great number of public figures, but for nearly 25 years, Huppert has been my workaday Beatrice.
It’s easy to overlook, amid the swoonings, the hugeness of her achievement: the naked, uneducated vulnerability of The Lacemaker (1977); the scarifyingly affectless amorality at the center of Chabrol’s Violette (1978), revisited in La Cérémonie (1995); the bruised teen-ness of the prairie whore in Heaven’s Gate (1980); the defiant, secretive self-possession hypercharging Pialat’s Loulou (1980) and Godard’s Every Man for Himself (1980); the organic feminine outrage of Entre Nous (1983) and Chabrol’s thorny Story of Women (1988). Having in the last 10 years or so grown sharper, cooler, and capable of enormous emotional violence, Huppert has epitomized an embattled womanhood under fantastic pressure, particularly in Chabrol’s Madame Bovary (1991), Christian Vincent’s scandalously underrated La Séparation (1994), Benoit Jacquot’s The School of Flesh (1998), and Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées (2000, opening here next week). Huppert has made over 60 films, virtually none of them commercial toss-offs. Imagine the last quarter-century of cinema without her.
All the same, one couldn’t have foreseen Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. Breathtakingly tragic character study, or, as many (male) critics have decided, sadistic horror show? “What is the problem, right?” Huppert says with a gentle lip curl. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like the film when they say that; it could be a good reaction, no? Maybe it’s better to think of the film, as I do, as a great love story—it’s less scary that way.”
In person, Huppert, still entrancing at 47, is stunningly slight, soft-spoken, and somehow veiled. You could look right at her on the street and not recognize her. Pitching Haneke’s white-knuckle psychodrama, she is predictably philosophical about the film’s fallout. In Cannes, it seemed to be dividing along gender lines. “If that’s true, if some men are reluctant about the film, it’s clearly because it’s about a woman who tries to behave a little bit like a man. She tries to change the rules of the game, and that can be very disturbing for some men to look at. She’s the one who wants to control the situation; she wants to control the man’s desire. Most of the time, that’s the man’s position. Why couldn’t this be relieving for a man?”
But Haneke’s film is hardly a cri de coeur for sexually manipulated women. “For her, it’s painful,” Huppert continues. “It’s a desperate quest for love. She tries to invent something else to make sure that this situation will be the most enchanting for her, because she’s so scared of everything. So, for me, the masochism is symbolic of her suffering in a larger sense.”
Perhaps the film’s most troublesome scene involves a kind of, er, climax to the suffocating combat between Huppert’s repressed pianiste and her pile-driving mother. “I think it’s the most beautiful scene in the film,” Huppert announces quietly. “You can’t see or understand or like the film if you do not get that scene. It’s the clearest representation of her quest for love, which takes its origins in her quest for her mother’s love. It’s like a little girl wanting to crawl back into the tummy of her mother, you see. If it were a sex scene, it would’ve had more obvious sexual gestures, but it’s more primitive than that. She wants, how you say, fusion.”
Reticent about her private life (“I am not married, I have children, I live in Paris” is how she sums it up), Huppert instead reminisces about the Voice, asking after her first and most passionate stateside champion, Andrew Sarris. (We both fondly remembered Sarris’s huge, mad evaluation of Loulou 21 years ago; for Huppert it was a turning point in her international career.) As for my idle speculation about Haneke’s movie being a somewhat risky undertaking for an actress her age, Huppert politely scoffs. “Nothing is safe, but selecting the good directors and the good roles—there’s nothing safer in the world. I had nothing to lose, and everything to win. It’s like I said in Cannes: Sometimes you think this will be the film that takes everything from you, and it turns out to be the film that only gives back.”
J. Hoberman’s review of The Piano Teacher