SHOW PEOPLE / Secret life of a French mouse: 77. Isabelle Huppert

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'A great tragic figure and someone wholly devoid of cynicism,' is how Isabelle Huppert sees Emma Bovary. She gives an outstanding performance as Flaubert's heroine in Claude Chabrol's version of the novel. Made two years ago and meticulously faithful to the text, the film opened to reasonable reviews, but also the sort of controversy that one might expect to be inspired by an important literary adaptation, however faithful. It may be less grudgingly received outside France, where audiences can at least feel that it gives them some immediate contact with the original work.

Huppert is currently in Lausanne, appearing on stage in Orlando. She belongs to a group of intelligent, independent and conscientious French actresses (including Isabelle Adjani, Nathalie Baye and Sophie Marceau) who were prominent in the early 1980s, but have tended to be seen less often since the middle of the decade. This is partly because fewer French films have been exported to this country in recent years: outside the London Film Festival, British audiences have still not seen Huppert in Diane Kurys's Apres l'amour, the film she made after Bovary. She has also been devoting more time in the past four years to the theatre. She comes from a theatrical family, made her stage debut at 14 and her first film when she was 16, in 1971.

After a supporting role in Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses in 1974, she was suddenly very busy. Success came in 1977, with Claude Goretta's La Dentelliere, where she gave a remarkable performance as a working-class girl involved in an unhappy love affair with a middle-class student. In the following year, she won the award for best actress at Cannes for her part in Chabrol's Violette Noziere, where she played a would-be murderess with a blend of innocence, menace and detachment.

Madame Bovary is her third film for Chabrol: she says that she chooses her parts more for the director than for the role, and her choice of directors argues intelligence and a willingness to take risks. She has appeared in films by Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Luc Godard, and starred opposite Gerard Depardieu in Loulou. She has also worked in Italy (with Mauro Bolognini and Marco Ferreri) and Hungary (with Marta Meszaros). She has done comedy (in Josiane Balasko's Sac de Noeuds among others), but has a preference for complex, slightly remote women, defeated in their attempts to take control of their lives. Emma perfectly fits the bill.

'Right now,' New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of her in the early Eighties, reviewing Godard's Sauve qui peut, 'if you want to go to the movies, she's hard to avoid, though it's worth the effort.' Kael marginally preferred her performance in Tavernier's Coup de torchon, while still finding her apathetic: 'When she has an orgasm, it barely ruffles her blank surface.' Her contained acting style, veering between matter-of-factness and aloof ethereality, may not have appealed to American audiences; and Heaven's Gate, where she was ill- cast in an ill-fated movie, did nothing for anyone's Hollywood career. However, she is returning to America this summer, to work with Hal Hartley, director of Trust.

The camera loves her, which is another way of saying that, off-screen, she appears smaller and less striking than she does on it. Kurys, director of her most recent picture and also a personal friend, claims that she is one of the few stars who can pass unnoticed in the street or in the Metro when she wants to. She probably does want to, both from a desire for privacy and a genuine bewilderment with the idea of stardom ('an invention of journalists'). Kurys also notes that her air of vulnerability and childlike innocence conceals a good deal of ambition.

In her publicity photographs - and even in the stills from her films - her expression is often the same: not quite smiling, looking a fraction away from the camera, as if absorbed in her own thoughts. Even critics who would disagree with Kael's entrenched dislike for 'this little French mouse'

have found her contradictory and enigmatic. When you put this to her, her first reaction is to reject the description; then she confirms it, with the admission that it could well be true. But she is much liked by directors, on whom her views are characteristically ambivalent: she has been quoted as saying that she likes to be manipulated, but 'also to create my own territory'; at other times, she will insist that she never has a strong feeling that she is being 'directed'.

Perhaps the reason that journalists find her disconcerting is that not only does she not like talking about her private life, she seems politely bored whenever the conversation comes round to her career, as if unable to grasp why it should be interesting. In contrast, she is immediately forthcoming on her roles - with plenty to say about Emma Bovary ('violence, hunger for life, courage, despair . . .'). Currently working in the theatre, she gives the impression that cinema is an easy option: 'I don't do any preparation, it's a matter of intuition.' But, almost immediately, she half-contradicts this: 'An actress's life,' she says, 'is a lot of hard work.' She likes filming with Chabrol: 'We get on well because we have the same,

rather cold outlook on people and situations.' And, you might add, a sure instinct for keeping herself to herself.

(Photograph omitted)