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Isabelle Huppert, the Mona Lisa of Cinema

Isabelle Huppert, the Mona Lisa of Cinema

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Sadistic piano teachers, lovesick young hairdressers, frosty chocolate-factory directors, dark ladies crushed in the French provinces, stuttering factory workers, honest magistrates or evil mothers who can slice the screen to shreds with a single glance.

There are truly few actresses on the international scene who, like Isabelle Huppert, have that ability to give shape, in the versatility of the her many roles, to that disturbing femininity that is a narrative all on its own and all on its own manages to shift the air as soon as she enters a shot.

Whether this allure passes through the figure of a mother, a wife, a lover or a confirmed spinster, whether it becomes precious fertilizer for dramatic stories or comic tales, doesn’t matter. The specific application varies neither the return nor the quality. This is a tangible sign that to arrive at the same point from such different paths, there can be no shortcuts. Just performers on a huge scale.

It is for this rare talent for performance that the 64th Locarno Film Festival and its artistic director, Olivier Père (see the press release), wish to pay tribute to Isabelle Huppert with its highest honour in the acting field: the Excellence Award Moët & Chandon. Not that Huppert suffers from any lack of awards, given that after the great success of her early theatrical career, her appearances on film have been showered with prizes.  

There was the Most Promising Newcomer BAFTA she won for The Lacemaker by Claude Goretta (as luck would have it, winner of a Pardo alla carriera at Locarno 64), the two Volpi Cups at the Venice Film Festival (for A Story of Women and La Cérémonie, both by Chabrol) and on up to the two Palms at Cannes for Best Actress (Violette Nozière, also Chabrol, and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher).

This long string of recognitions – here we’ve only touched on the highlights – has led her to be crowned a true queen of the festivals. It’s no coincidence that for years the joke has been going around at every major film festival that films starring Huppert should always be out of competition, otherwise the prize for best actress is a foregone conclusion. The quip says a lot, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, given that these tributes are often linked to a series of films that automatically enter the pantheon of cinema. 

Just run your finger down her filmography, and you’ll find a geographic map of European arthouse cinema. Not just France (Tavernier, Chabrol, Godard, Téchiné, Jacquot, Ozon, Honoré), but also Italy (Bolognini, Ferreri, the Taviani brothers), Switzerland (Goretta), Austria (Haneke) and Poland (Wajda).

Even her forays into American cinema, after a first experience with Otto Preminger’s Rosebud, have been associated with one of the most beautiful and damned movies in the history of film, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which has entered the annals for the huge discrepancy between production costs and box-office takings and the resulting collapse of a major studio. In other words, latitudes might vary, but she is always there, ready to carve the hidden heart of her characters into the pale flesh of her face and the ambiguity of her smile. The Excellence Award Moët & Chandon is an award for all this, lying beyond the individual films in which she has acted, or rather, recognizing them all together.

Lorenzo Buccella
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