Monday, July 09, 2007

Isabelle Huppert at ACMI - 3

The films from ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert in this post are a varied lot: a social-realist horror film, a film-noir comedy, an American western and a period drama. The ACMI programmers have certainly given us a diverse range of films in which to appreciate the subject: the very talented Isabelle Huppert.

Today and tomorrow are your last chances to catch some of the finest screenings of French films, including one by the very enigmatic (and rarely seen in this country) Raúl Ruiz:
  • Mon 7.00pm: La vie promise (The Promised Life, Olivier Dahan, 2001)
  • Mon 8.45pm: Comédie de l'innocence (Comedy of Innocence, Raúl Ruiz, 2000)
  • Tue 7.00pm: La cérémonie (The Ceremony, Claude Chabrol, 1995)
Le temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf, France/Austria/Germany, Michael Haneke, 2002)
Somehow I missed seeing this film made in between my first Haneke experience (The Piano Teacher, 2001) and my second (Hidden, 2005). I think I was put off by a description I heard of it as a horror film. Genre brings expectations, and while the film does not really fit into that genre, it is not altogether inappropriate either (though any horror is not what the title may initially suggest). It is more of a social drama/thriller about an unidentified threat to civilisation as we know it.

The film is sparse, austere, and with little dialogue. While the plot is very different to Hidden, it shares that film's style. The plot has more in common with say Children of Men, without the stylistic embellishments (and that's not a criticism). While Cuarón's film describes a world crisis without explanation, Haneke's provides so little information, that we don't even know what the threat is. What we see in abundance is the disturbing social responses from the perspective of a family caught away from home and away from the city. The film also recalls Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), but without the zombies.

Like Ma mère (My Mother) and Nue propriété (Private Property) - both of which starred Isabelle Huppert - the film's opening credits are without any sound, adding to a sobering sense of mystery and foreboding. The whole film is without music other than a character's unenhanced playing of a tape in a cassette recorder.

Haneke is a difficult director for some audiences. His films (the ones I've seen) are cold. He uses cold colours. People are emotionally distant, don't communicate effectively, don't relate. While this makes it hard for some to engage with unsympathetic characters, it peels back the medium to reveal a raw core. One doesn't have to like a character to appreciate the nuance depicted and Haneke's work is full it. His depiction of a scenario without explanation is so intelligent and effective. We get to share the experience of the characters, trying to learn facts and make sense of 'reality' as if we were there ourselves.

Huppert's character is mother and protector of her two children on holiday in the country when disaster arrives suddenly and shockingly. Think of the abrupt moment in Hidden. There are a couple of moments like this in The Time of the Wolf. While the brilliant Huppert has top billing, her role is subordinate to the enormity of the situation she finds herself in. The portrayal of the situation is itself relegated to the background, with the prime focus being on how people react, individually and collectively.

The Time of the Wolf is both very original and very bold in both its conception and execution. It powerfully succeeds in everything it sets out to achieve, ending with ambiguity but (like Children of Men) with some sense of hope. Having now seen three Haneke films, I look forward to seeing anything else by this very talented and challenging director.

Amateur (Hal Hartley, USA, 1994)
Cinema is an emotional experience and a good serious film takes time to digest. While I generally don't like to see two films in a day, exceptions can be made for something as outstanding as ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert. Fortunately the ACMI programmers put on a comedy on after the very harrowing The Time of the Wolf.

Amateur is my first experience of Hal Hartley's films. It's a strange beast and crosses different genres: film noir, black comedy and parody. It doesn't take itself seriously, is silly yet intelligent. There is a real shortage of good, intelligent comedy in cinema today to the extent that I rarely see a comedy any more. So this film is welcome relief.

In the context of an Isabelle Huppert retrospective, it's interesting to see how this actress is utilised by American directors and how her performances compare to those in French films. She has a good command of the English language, so I think she could portray anything in English she has in her native French. However, it seems that American directors appreciate Huppert more for her willingness to tackle sexually challenging characters rather than her much more special talent at depicting subtle and ambiguous emotional roles. Or maybe it's a case that Huppert is not interested in the same kind of roles when appearing in American films. I don't see this as a negative - it's just an observation. It does add to the variety of roles she has played.

In this film she unsurprisingly plays a former nun (and always smoking, something she seems to do in every film I've seen her in). I found neither the film nor Huppert's performance outstanding, but a welcome addition to the retrospective as an example of the varied films she has appeared in and a variation on her range. The performance certainly is against type and am open to the possibility that I brought expectations with me into the cinema. The film was well-written, very enjoyable and with very interesting characters.

The official website for Amateur quotes Huppert: "I call Amateur a metaphysical thriller. It's a strong thriller full of deep and philosophical themes and questions. But it's never intellectual or cerebral. To carry all that depth and ask all those deep questions in a simple, action movie is truly great art." The site also quotes Huppert's reasons for accepting the role: nobody would ever have given her this role in France. It goes against the preconceptions of who she is and the kind of work she does, and this was an opportunity for her to break out of that.

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, USA, 1980)
Isabelle Huppert was about 27 when she made this film, and doesn't she look young! Again, it's interesting to see how an American director utilises her talents. Playing a loveable 'whore', she's not pushed or challenged to any great degree, but delivers some of her trademark emotional nuance that few American actresses are capable of. The depiction of prostitutes in this film was similarly repeated in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and Kris Kristofferson's Averill reminded me of Eastwood's characterisations, particularly as the cool-as-a-cucumber Inspector Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry.

I'm not a great fan of the western genre, though this film departs from the typical goody/baddy stereotypes. While it does test a contemporary audience - labouring somewhat over 225 minutes (nearly four hours) - it has much to admire. The story concerns itself with a death list that the stock association puts together - with a $50 bounty for each person on the list. The list appears to be comprised completely of poor starving immigrants who have settled harsh land and have stolen cattle to feed their struggling families. The film seems to be a critique on the corrupt relationship between government and big business and the arrogance towards the 'little man' in the land of free enterprise. It could almost be a metaphor for oil and Iraq and definitely has universal and timeless relevance that resonates to this day.

Typical with genre, the widescreen is used effectively, and there was good attention to period detail - this film must have cost a bundle to produce. There was a smoky soft-lens look about the film which reminded me of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was a quieter film but similarly slow-moving. Heaven's Gate does have action - it's a western after all. It seems like Cimino was attempting to rescue the genre from legend and place it within both an art film and more serious historical and political context. If that was his intent, he largely succeeded, though I believe the film did poorly at the box office.

There's a great line up of recognisable actors other than Kristofferson - particularly Christopher Walken, but also John Hurt, Jeff Bridges and Micky Rourke - and it was interesting to see them with much younger faces. Huppert's role as Ella was not particularly major, but seemed to serve as the emotional core of the film and connected various characters. It must have been a strange and perhaps liberating experience for her to move from dark French films to a grand project like this. I enjoyed the film in context, and it added variety to the Huppert retrospective, but it's not the type of film I normally go out of my way for.

Saint-Cyr (Patricia Mazuy, France, 1999)
Prior to seeing Saint-Cyr, the only other French period film I had seen was Patrice Chéreau's very bloody La reine Margot (Queen Margot, 1994). While these films are very different to each other in content and style, both are very extravagant productions vastly superior to most of their English counterparts. In fact, Queen Margot is one of the first foreign-language films I saw, and its brutality shocked as much as its beauty enthralled me.

Saint-Cyr has none of the brutality but much beauty. Isabelle Huppert plays Madame de Maintenon, a mistress then wife of Luis XIV (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). A strict woman, with the assistance of Luis XIV she founded Saint-Cyr, a special boarding school that selected 250 poor girls with the aim of elevating them through moral and social training, perhaps to be part of the royal entourage.

Madame de Maintenon is depicted as a strict and demanding woman, prone to whims. The film depicts the gradual training of the girls, the teaching of French (many of them spoke regional dialects) and the conflicted emotions as the girls reached marriageable age. When the girls are courted by the local nobility, Madame de Maintenon forcefully coerces the abbot (Simon Reggiani) to apply strict rules for their behaviour.

It was interesting to note a small role by Jérémie Renier, prior to his gaining prominence in the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant and Joachim Lafosse's Nue propriété. Isabelle Huppert is an actress whose screen presence could easily overwhelm a film. Of the dozen or so films I have seen her in, I have yet to see a one in which she has allowed herself to dominate the screen in the way that Hollywood films often exploit their actors. In this she portrays compassion, dignity, severity and subtlety with another fine performance.

Related posts: Isabelle Huppert at ACMI 1, 2, 4 or All

No comments: