I don’t know of a serious American actress who would take such enormous risks on screen as calmly cutting her vagina with a razor blade so her blood drips into the white bathtub; incestuously ripping away her mother’s nightgown rasping, “I see your hairs!”; or giving a blowjob to a man she imperiously commands not to touch himself to finish it off, adding, “Now you can put it away…hard.” But as he turns away angrily to stuff it back, she says, “Non! Face à moi!”
This is French star Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, for which she won “Best Actress” in Cannes (the only actor to have won twice) for her portrayal of a highly repressed, greatly talented, profoundly perverted attractive woman in her 40s.
Who would take such risks in Hollywood? Certainly not paltry Gwyneth Paltrow, who in Possession can barely reach 25 watts as compared with her English co-star, glowing, womanly Jennifer Ehle. Meryl Streep has shown vast range and risk in films such as Ironweed and Sophie’s Choice, but she has not taken on perverts. Isabelle Huppert is fearless. She swaggers into a porn booth, brazenly staring down the same-faced men while waiting her turn. As she watches the film, she picks up and sniffs the discarded tissues from prior viewers, closing her eyes in ecstasy. She stalks drive-in movies to find couples making love squats beside the car and pees in rapture. In The Piano Teacher, she barely moves a facial muscle or allows an emotion into her eyes, but when she does, it’s like the shoot-out in High Noon. No one is more subtle in portraying hidden depth-charges. During this film, my stomach was so tense that I could not eat for hours, even with the help of French red wine.
Michael Haneke, the Belgian director of The Piano Teacher, waited 15 years to get Huppert. He wouldn’t make it without her. He had seen her in The Lacemaker (1977), in which she plays a repressed and victimized woman who says little and for which she was nominated for a César Award. The following year she made Violette Nozière with Claude Chabrol directing and won her first “Best Acress” award at Cannes at the age of 23. She went on to work in 62 films with some of the top French directors, including Godard, Tavernier, Blier, and five more with Chabrol.
Michael Haneke takes his own risks. He keeps long, uncut shots holding the camera in one place. In the blowjob scene, for several minutes we see only Benoit Magimel’s face and chest as he registers complex emotions, which won him the Cannes “Best Actor” award. In the rape scene, we see only Huppert’s face as Magimel beats and brutalizes her in partial revenge, partial pleasure, for at least five minutes. The film opens with a shot from above of hands playing the piano for an entire movement of a Beethoven Sonata. Huppert, by the way, plays piano herself, having had intense lessons to prepare her for the role. She would not accept a stand-in.
The Piano Teacher is about the limits of dominance and control as explored through sadism and masochism. Erika (Huppert’s character) wants her sexual games with her student to bring her to the point where she, through controlling him, is able to lose control of herself, an experience she has never had. Music as well becomes a sexual tool and when he plays his five-minute audition, again there is an uninterrupted shot of Huppert’s face, her eyes registering both her falling in love and her anger in doing so. She had only five minutes to film this scene because she had to catch a plane to be with her three children. But a retake was never needed.
Isabelle Huppert said in an interview, “In life we are all the time ourselves, as well as postures of ourselves. You are an actress even when you are not.” She also said, “Once you decide to do a character, the rest of the work is very technical. That is how I can do these difficult scenes. I see it only as a job I have to do as well as I possibly can.”
In Merci pour le Chocolat (2002), the newest film by Chabrol, Huppert, playing a less intense but more lethal character, can deliver a look that as Coleridge once wrote, “thicks man’s blood with cold.” When her second murder goes awry and she is psychologically stripped down, she sits demurely on a sofa and tears begin to well up in her otherwise expressionless face. And well up and well up for the entire length of the credits. She barely blinks and Chabrol’s camera never moves off her face.
At a screening in the 2000 Hamptons Film Festival, I saw her in Pas de Scandale by Benoit Jacquot. Although she is shown nude taking a shower, she is far more sexy striding fully dressed into a room in an unbelted trench coat, or swinging a leg provocatively while perched on a chair. After the screening, she strode up the aisle right next to me, only five feet tall, with finely chiseled features, and a very freckled, very vulnerable face.
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.