As her superb Things to Come opens at the Esquire Theatre on Friday, let the record show that Isabelle Huppert is ready for her moment in the spotlight. In the 2016 awards season, she is the dark horse — a performer who wanders into the frame and finds a way to hold our gaze long enough to give us reason to pause.
The National Society of Film Critics bestowed its Best Actress prize to her, jointly recognizing her excellence in both Elle and Things to Come. She also snagged Best Actress (Drama) honors at the Golden Globes for Elle (which also took the award for Best Foreign Language Film).
How is it that Huppert, whose stellar career includes performances in Benoît Jacquot’s The School of Flesh, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, François Ozon’s 8 Women and again with Haneke in Amour, has never, at age 63, even been nominated for an Academy Award? She has been nominated 15 times for the César Award (the French Oscar), but even in her homeland has only claimed the prize once — a Best Actress award for The School of Flesh. Still, Huppert is as much an acting treasure as Meryl Streep, although she operates on a lower frequency, with quiet sexual tension and an uncanny ability to move effortlessly through the most absurd or surreal encounters.
Take, for instance, her performance in the French film Elle (also at the Esquire) as Michèle Leblanc, the successful and fiercely independent head of a video game company attempting to stay one step ahead of an unknown assailant who sexually assaults her one afternoon in her home. Director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), whose reputation leans toward a penchant for brazen titillation for its own sake, seems — at least initially — to rein in his excessive tendencies, crafting a taut thriller around Michèle’s constant vigilance in both her personal and professional worlds.
Once the shoe drops with the discovery of the identity of the attacker, Elle slides down a steep slope into sexual fantasy, with Huppert somehow maintaining a precarious balance under the weight of Verhoeven’s leering gaze. She’s earning praise for trusting her own exceptional instincts.
While I missed Elle during its Toronto International Film Festival run, I was able to attend the public screening of writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come. The French Hansen-Løve started as an actress and has become a director and screenwriter for cinema — her other films include The Father of My Children, Goodbye First Love and Eden.
In Things to Come, Huppert settles into the familiar skin of Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy teacher struggling to deal with mid-life transitional concerns like the loss of her mother and her husband’s announcement that he’s having an affair and wants to leave her. Nathalie, despite all of these crises, keeps her head up, ready to face the next challenge. Unlike the dramatic twists we’re waiting for in Elle, Things to Come focuses on living day to day, dealing with the inconveniences and the trials that, in other films or serialized shows, spiral fantastically out of control. The usual escape we seek from the movies gets realized in the nature of these problems and the life-changing responses undertaken by the protagonists.
What Huppert fans have come to expect from her, however, is the measured and downright reassuring attitude she is in these moments. Her characters never overreact.
And when, after the TIFF screening, she emerged from the wings as the lights slowly brightened after the credits, I was struck by the unearthly sense of peace emanating from this tiny figure. Not a care in the world could seemingly touch her and she conveyed that same spirit to everyone in the room.
For those fortunate enough to catch Elle and Things to Come while they’re here, prepare for a pair of performances with startling similarities. Michèle and Nathalie are opposite sides of the same coin — women beset at every turn by the sad banality of everyday evils — but Huppert shows us that there are many ways to rise above these concerns. And I have no doubt that there will be more to come. With more than 100 films to her credit, she’s just getting warmed up. (Things to Come opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: A