Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Isabelle Huppert at ACMI - 4

ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert has ended, so maybe life will get back to normal in the Melbourne Film Blogger's household (well, maybe until MIFF starts on July 25, when the film fever starts all over again). While I expected to see eight of the ACMI titles, I ended up seeing thirteen of the twenty! No wonder I'm exhausted. With three of the films I'd seen previously, that's only four that I've not yet seen.

Some of the films I liked more than others, some I was disappointed with. Overall, in the context of a retrospective, which is a focus on a particular person or theme, I was mightily impressed with the quality and variety of films selected for the program. While I prefer to see Isabelle Huppert in serious and challenging roles (she certainly has an attraction and talent for these), it was a good balance to see her out of type.

In the films I saw, Huppert portrayed:
  • A morally corrupt mother (Ma mère)
  • A shy teenage apprentice hairdresser (La dentelliére)
  • A prostitute three times (Sauve qui peut (la vie), La vie promise and Heaven's Gate)
  • An unfaithful wife (Loulou)
  • A mother in the midst of various crises (La séparation, Le temps du loup and Comédie de l'innocence)
  • A murderess (Merci pour le chocolat and La cérémonie)
  • A former nun writing pornographic stories (Amateur)
  • A seventeenth century queen (Saint-Cyr)
Huppert can portray a wild, promiscuous woman as effectively as a repressed virgin, and everything in between. The range is impressive, and to see it in the concentrated context of a retrospective is all the more effective.

There were some interesting contrasts. In Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie), Huppert was very convincing as a prostitute (in a film that overall didn't particularly engage me). Yet in Dahan's La vie promise, I found it hard to buy into Huppert's role as a prostitue. She seemed too nice to be the character she portrayed. She certainly has the ability, so I suspect it was the direction that let her down.

Of the films I saw, Ma mère was the most challenging, Le temps du loup was the most gripping, La séparation was my favourite film overall (and my favourite performance by Daniel Auteuil), followed closely by La dentellière (perhaps the most subtle film of the lot) and Loulou. Of course, Haneke's La Pianiste is also an excellent and challenging piece, which I saw when it had its theatrical release, and was both the first Haneke and Huppert film I've seen.

The films I missed were: Coup de foudre, Cactus, Une affaire des femmes and Madame Bovary.

One thing that fascinated me about the retrospective as a whole is that in spite of Huppert's unusually and almost unprecedented strong screen presence, she rarely 'hogs' the screen. Either she chooses roles where this is the case, or the directors she works with use her effectively without overexposing her. I'm feel reasonably sure that Huppert plays a significant part in this prior to accepting a role. I don't think she is ego-driven at all, and is prepared to take many risks as an actress, but is not prepared to sell herself short by appearing in mindless trash movies that pay bigger bucks.

Kudos once again to ACMI for putting on such an impressive and serious retrospective, and especially to Roberta Ciabarra who curated the season. Ten of the titles are part of a touring program that has screened around the world, and Roberta selected another ten titles. It was particularly bold to open with Ma Mère and I think many of the white-faced and silent faces that left the cinema might have sworn not to go back for any more of the screenings, as some of the later screenings had fairly small audiences (one had as few as 30-40 people). The final night was, however, relatively well-attended with about 150 or so people (not bad for a Tuesday night).

Of the twenty films:
  • 2 were Australian premieres (Ma mère and Le comedie de l'innocence)
  • 8 had no OFLC classification (so hadn't been seen outside of a film festival)
  • 2 have R18+ classifications
  • 16 were in French and 4 in English (3 American & 1 Australian)
  • 4 were by Claude Chabrol and 2 were by Michael Haneke
Of the last 13 films I've seen, 12 were part of the Huppert focus - I sacrificed my Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings to get as much Huppert as possible. Here are my impressions of the final three.

La vie promise (The Promised Life, Olivier Dahan, 2002)
This is an earlier effort by the director of La vie en rose, which is about to be released. I haven’t seen it yet, but what I’ve heard of it hasn’t been particularly flattering. La vie promise had some things going for it but I find it hard to recall them because right from the start there were significant negatives that overwhelmed the positives to the extent that the film rarely engaged me. The most significant flaws were:

  • A pretentious pseudo-arty set-up at the start that didn't really work, and irritated when the theme resurfaced at different times during the film
  • The use of American music seemed very contrived, and grated in tandem with the above point
  • Unnecessarily shaky hand-held camera. It went beyond bordering on the ridiculous. It gave an impression of trying too hard to appear gritty and serious when really the film was fairly conventional. This was perhaps the most disturbing element for me and I felt I had to keep looking away from the screen and watching with my peripheral vision.
  • Huppert's role as a prostitute was unconvincing. She was made to look completely grotty and unattractive, with obnoxious behaviour, yet close-ups of her face revealled a kind and warm person inconsistent with the character.
  • Coincidences were too much like a Hollywood thriller.
Perhaps I'm being kind in saying that it wasn't a bad film, but it wasn't good either.

Comédie de l'innocence (Comedy of Innocence, Raúl Ruiz, France, 2000)
Be warned, spoilers follow. It's a pity I saw this film after Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004) which is highly derivative of Ruiz's vastly superior film, but which spoilt the surprise for me. Comedy of Innocence is very mysterious and being a Ruiz film, has an air of the surreal. The mystery has a sense of the absurd which injects a light sense of humour. It wasn't always clear what was happening and why (and that's a positive). Only at the end was it clear that it was a similar scenario to Birth, though not to an extent for my partner to pick up.

The visuals, music and characters all worked well in tandem and created a tense atmosphere. Huppert plays a relatively conservative role, but in an unusual situation. While I'm happy to sit in an empty cinema, considering this was a Ruiz film and an Australian premiere, it was disappointing that only about 40 or so people turned up for the screening. This could be attributed to the film being a late addition to the program and not included in any of the printed promotional material, and also because it was a late night screening on a Monday.

La cérémonie (The Ceremony, Claude Chabrol, France, 1995)
Chabrol used Huppert sparely in this film based on a Ruth Rendell novel, but like Merci pour le chocolat, was reminiscent of a restrained and taut Hitchcock thriller. There was a constant sense of the unknown, of things not being revealed. Sandrine Bonnaire takes centre stage as Sophie, the new domestic help for a couple and their children at an isolated country home. Huppert's character is the local postal worker, Jeanne.

All seems well, though Sophie acts a little strange and has secrets. So too does Jeanne and the two hit it off quite well. The man of the house, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) doesn't like Jeanne (he suspects her of reading his mail), and Sophie's blossoming relationship with her bothers him. It all gets complicated and grim. The film is good entertainment as a reasonably conventional but intelligent thriller, largely due to the effort put into writing good characters. Bonnaire's performance was chilling and Huppert effectively played a light, perky character out of type.

Related posts: Isabelle Huppert at ACMI 1, 2, 3 or All

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