Isabelle Huppert: the allure of her vacant room


Negotiating pimps as Isabelle in Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)

Isabelle Huppert is in London and the sun is shining bright, a lion in the sky, shaking its mane over her enigmatic chill. It’s Huppert Season: films are playing in various cinemas across the city, some accompanied by introductions from herself. Last weekend she was in conversation with Stephen Frears at the Ciné Lumière, and at the Barbican Huppert is currently playing Phaedra(s) in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s esteemed production of the same name.

Critics laud Huppert’s intellect, which she expresses with incisive clarity (it’s worth checking out Jonathan Romney’s recent interview in the Guardian). Huppert is a supreme actress, and for years I have been turning her allure over in my mind, trying to understand why she has captivated us for over forty-five years and why we want to connect with her characters.

‘Intense’, ‘detached’, ‘controlled’, ‘fragile’: these are all adjectives writers use to describe Huppert’s performances. They are accurate descriptions, but in my mind her appeal is more complex. Last week I took myself down to see Huppert in a twilight screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) ‘Every Man for Himself.’ Huppert plays a young prostitute called Isabelle, a role for which Godard told her to simply ‘have the face of suffering.’

On the tube-ride home, in those peaceful hours between rush-hour squeeze and 11.30pm boozed-up passengers, it came to me that in Sauve qui peut (la vie) Huppert’s face is like a vacant room; and that in all her films this is the same, empty and open at the same time. We want to step inside, take up residence in Huppert’s mind and walk with her characters. Her invitation is polite, never pushy, but always difficult to resist.

First released in 1979, Sauve qui peut (la vie) is a linear (Godard calls it his ‘second feature film’, after a decade of experimental work) account of selfishness, economic transaction and relationships. It invites us to observe much that can arise from dark self-obsession, and many of these blacker moments are seen through the eyes of Isabelle. It is divided into four sections: ‘The Prologue’, ‘The Imaginary,’ ‘Fear’ and ‘Commerce.’

‘Commerce’ is Huppert’s section and we observe her life as a prostitute: working in hotel rooms (looking detached and sour-faced as men objectify her), negotiating greedy pimps and also her flat-mates who hate her. At one point Isabelle has sex like a robot with Paul, the lead character, all the while thinking about the practicalities of the next day. There’s also a curious job where Isabelle is hired by a man who wants her to play his daughter in a fantasy-incest scenario.

All the chilly taboos are here: incest, prostitution (domination and submission), physical violence in relationships and allusions to bestiality. Godard is persistent in stretching out the characters’ responses by slowing down some of the moments using an editing-technique called ‘decomposition’ (interesting to note that the initial UK release was called ‘Slow Motion’). These are visual jolts: stills and blurred movements. They detach us and create a space where we can respond with our own voice. We are distanced and at the same time, involved.

Alongside this is Huppert’s very own ‘still motion,’ which invites us into the strange, uncomfortable rooms of Sauve qui peut (la vie). It is displayed by her detached facial expression and the controlled yet casual way she holds her body. Huppert’s ‘still motion’ is the ‘vacancy,’ placing us at the back of her eyes, as she sits us down on the end of Godard’s bed and encourages us to make our own judgments about what we see. It is this perspective that is Huppert’s magic. She has a generosity in her ostensible coldness: she lets us in. We are with her, inside her characters, travelling the corridors of her directors’ vision.


In Claude Chabrol’s Madame Bovary

Godard’s vision in Sauve qui peut (la vie) is harsh in its treatment of commerce, domination and sex. Yet inside the perspective of Huppert’s mind we stay safe, free to engage with her ‘face of suffering.’ But we are still aloof: able to observe and self-protect. This is exactly where Godard wants us to be, and it is what still makes Sauve qui peut (La Vie) such an effective and relevant film close to forty years since its first release.

Huppert’s cine-magic doesn’t rest here, she also gives us her very own separation.

We see Huppert’s ‘separation’ in all her performances. It’s in the moments when she lifts her eyes and looks to a place that is both beyond her characters and the mountains on the horizon of the director’s vision.

It is Huppert’s space, and it is elsewhere. It is cinema, and it is indescribable. Just as it should be.


(London, 7th June 2016)

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