Film Studies: The French directors' woman

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At the risk of getting too excited about a blonde actress with a touch of red in her hair, may I draw your attention to Isabelle Huppert, who is about to be celebrated at the National Film Theatre. She has outstanding credentials: she is a Pisces, born in Paris to a French father and an English mother (isn't that the recipe that produced Jeanne Moreau?), and she is 51 and possessed of a confidence that leaves you in no doubt about it being her prime.

Quite simply, she is one of the great actresses on the screen, and one who has steadfastly pursued the best and the most daring of directors. It may have been a blessing that, very early on - after The Lacemaker, The Judge and the Assassin and Violette Nozière - she got her chance to come to Hollywood, to play Ella in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. She was not exactly welcomed. The powers at United Artists thought she looked rather plain or shabby and didn't think she had the star power to be everyone's beloved in their big western. In the event, she amazed them all. Not least with a casual nakedness and sexuality that left the male stars looking rather prim.

She is radiant in the film, and her death is its tragic peak. But it was such a famous disaster that she only ever did one more mainstream American picture - Curtis Hanson's The Bedroom Window, where she is rather unpleasant. With English as good as hers, it was a mercy to be warned off working in America that early. Of course, she might have become as renowned and as wealthy as Greta Garbo. But something seems to have told her that her nourishment depended on modest, dangerous enterprises with directors she trusted.

One of those is Claude Chabrol, as elusive as he is fecund. Alas, the NFT season cannot present Chabrol's Violette Nozière, based on a real case from the 1930s in which a young woman seeks to murder her parents. It is a film steeped in wretchedness from which Huppert's pale, pretty but wary face shines like the kind of light smugglers set up to lure ships on to rocks. It was a film that also starred Stéphane Audran (the great star of Chabrol's early films, and his wife) yet the director can't take his eyes off the enigma of Huppert. I stress that one because, to my mind, Huppert's Madame Bovary for Chabrol counts as one of her failures. It's not that she isn't thoughtful, impulsive and sexy, but her Emma seems destroyed when the film starts. Her flame has gone out. On the other hand, there are other Chabrols - Une affaire des femmes (about a woman guillotined for performing abortions) and La cérémonie (where she and Sandrine Bonnaire are like Groucho and Harpo let loose on a bourgeois home) - that are major films.

But then think of The Lacemaker, done when she was 21, for Claude Goretta - a quite magical performance; or her funny, earthy woman in Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de torchon, the inspired adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel Pop. 1280; or her prostitute in Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie).

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that Huppert had elected to follow a brave, experimental path. It's easy enough to imagine that she was being offered something like half the promising scripts in France or Europe. Yet she began to cultivate new directors, out-of-the-way pictures and some that seemed unlikely. She did return to America, but to resolute independence, to play in Hal Hartley's Amateur a former nun who has become a pornographic writer. How easily that set-up could have seemed preposterous or pretentious. Yet one warning glance from Huppert and audiences accepted that she was equally capable of either devotion.

In Australia, for Paul Cox, she had been the woman losing her sight in Cactus. For Diane Kurys, she entered into a relationship with Miou-Miou in Coup de foudre. For Raul Ruiz she was the mother who risked losing her child in Comédie de l'innocence. She went to Russia to do The Flood for Igor Minayev, about a mother who adopts. For Patricia Mazuy she was Madame de Maintenon in Saint Cyr. She was hilarious as one of the Eight Women for François Ozon. And she played a middle-aged prostitute in Olivier Dahan's La vie promise.

I have left my two favourites to last, and they are a matched pair, two very disturbing films, made on the edge of what is acceptable and moving, and nearly too much to watch - I mean Maurice Pialat's Loulou (1980), where she set new standards with Gérard Depardieu for the exploration of sexual intelligence. Almost exactly the same thing could be said, 21 years later, for her commitment to Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. Yet again, this is a film about sexual extremism and it suggests how far Mlle Huppert has returned to that imperative, as if knowing it is at the heart of cinema.

But don't get too excited? Why not? She is an actress and a real woman, of course, a professional and an artist - and those roles seldom co-exist easily.

I take acting and the movies very seriously and this is the time to thank the Independent on Sunday for giving me space to say so. I discover I have worked here for 15 years - it seems like a moment. I am moving on, but I am grateful to readers who have written to me and above all I am thankful for the friends I have made at the paper among editors and fellow-writers - here are the key names, and it is good that you know the people who make a paper work: Tim de Lisle, Rosie de Lisle, Laurence Earle, Simon O'Hagan, Madeleine North, Mike Higgins, Marcus Field, Ruth Metzstein, Antonia Quirke, Nicholas Lezard, Jonathan Romney, Gilbert Adair, Quentin Curtis; Anthony Lane (a hero) and Jenny Turner (who really launched the Film Studies column).

* The Isabelle Huppert season runs at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), from Friday to 30 Nov