The great French actress Isabelle Huppert made her English-language debut 36 years ago in Michael Cimino’s "Heaven’s Gate," much to the chagrin of studio executives who considered her too odd, too aloof and too darn foreign for the role. (One of them, Steven Bach, all but called her ugly in his nasty, score-settling tell-all book.) Viciously panned by critics and ignored by audiences at the time, Cimino’s unwieldy opus has actually aged quite well, though not as well as its leading lady.
At 63, Huppert is having the best year of her career, with two highly acclaimed films so oddly similar in surface specifics and yet so wildly divergent in tone it’s an almost show-offy display of her talents to have "Things to Come" and "Elle" playing across the hall from one another at area arthouses.
Of course Huppert has long been a superstar overseas. She’s won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival twice, and the collaborators on her resume read like a who’s-who of international filmmaking icons: Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Bertrand Blier, Claude Chabrol, André Téchiné, Maurice Pialat, Andrzej Wajda, Olivier Assayas, Raúl Ruiz, François Ozon, Claire Denis and Michael Haneke. But so far most of her American exposure has been limited to an oddball Hal Hartley riff ("Amateur,") a romp with David O. Russell back in his weird old days ("I Heart Huckabees") and co-starring with Ice-T and Sharon Stone on a very special episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." (This is not a joke.)
Then last week Huppert beat out the heavily favored Natalie Portman, Annette Bening and Emma Stone to take home Best Actress trophies from the IFP Gotham, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards. Suddenly the grande dame of European kink cinema is becoming this year’s Oscar season "It girl."
Opening this Friday, "Things to Come" is by far the gentler of Huppert’s current films. She stars as Nathalie Chazeaux, a prickly philosophy professor whose perfectly settled life begins to come undone when her husband of 25 years leaves her for another woman. Meanwhile, trend-obsessed young editors want to either revamp Nathalie’s popular textbook or stop publishing it altogether, and to top it all off her handful of a mother has fallen ill. Yet as directed by the wise-beyond-her-years Mia Hansen-Løve, these personal and professional setbacks are presented as neither tragedies nor melodrama, but inevitable rites of passage.
Hansen-Løve’s previous picture, "Eden," chronicled the unspectacular career of a techno DJ as he aged out of a vanishing scene. Still only 35, she’s got a much older artist’s sense of time marching on, looking back not in anger nor even wistfully. This is all just stuff that happens, a serenity that’s reflected in "Things to Come's" unadorned filmmaking and Huppert’s luminous performance. As befitting an academic, we see Nathalie thinking her way through her feelings. A life spent studying philosophy texts has her constantly putting things into a larger perspective. Her friendship with a favorite former student doesn’t go quite where one might expect (particularly for a French film starring Isabelle Huppert) but is instead a meeting of minds brought off with intellectual vigor and rueful acknowledgements of the generational divide.
The movie kind of fritters away in the final reel. I’ve never been as bowled over by Hansen-Løve’s films as my colleagues seem to be, and I think that might be because she’s so good at capturing the ebb and flow of everyday life that the films never really feel like they come to a climax. But "Things to Come" has a stillness that lingers with you, as does Huppert’s acceptance and grace.
There’s nothing at all gentle about "Elle," an audacious affront from director Paul Verhoeven as unsettling as it is sickly comic. The vicious satirist behind "Robocop," "Basic Instinct" and (sigh) "Showgirls" is once again poking at the limits of propriety and he’s found an ideal partner in Huppert. She stars here as Michele Leblanc, who we first meet while she’s being violently raped by a masked intruder on the floor of her exquisite Paris apartment. Verhoeven being Verhoeven, the camera spends most of the assault focused on the indifferent reaction of Michele’s cat.
Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from a novel by Philippe Djian, "Elle" is an unholy mingling of rape-revenge fantasies with a fusty French bedroom farce. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Every time you think you have a grasp on what the movie means it slips through your fingers and offers another, possibly even more troubling interpretation. Verhoeven gets in trouble a lot for his tasteless sense of humor, but while "Elle" is often a very funny movie it is never a trivial one. The film takes Michele’s trauma extremely seriously, and is, I believe, at the bottom of its black, ugly heart about her journey to reclaim the agency that was stolen from her that afternoon.
It’s also a semi-screwball comedy of manners in which a bunch of well-heeled Parisians are constantly going to dinner parties and sleeping with one another’s significant others, prankishly photographed in a manner meant to mimic the banal Euro-pudding often released by this film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics. I rather accidentally ended up seeing "Elle" the same day I saw "Things to Come" and couldn’t help cackling at the overlapping elements. Much like Nathalie, Michele is constantly being disrespected by younger co-workers and also has an ex-husband in over his head with a girl half his age. They’re both saddled with useless sons to whom they can’t relate, along with pain-in-the-ass mothers on the way out. But let’s just say that Verhoeven holds his supporting characters in significantly less regard than Hansen-Løve does.
He’s fascinated by Michele, though, as are we. She’s in every scene of "Elle," and this is the performance of Huppert’s career. By turns smirky, devastated, exposed, carnal and ferocious — it’s the kind of high-wire act you can’t imagine any other actress pulling off. (It's tough to think of another working actress who would even dare to try.) "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all," Michele concedes in one of the film’s sadder moments. Typical Huppert, she says it with the trace of a smile.