Category Archives: Isabelle Huppert

The Sea Wall (2008)

A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.

So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).

The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.

And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.

Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.

The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.

The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts.  The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?)  I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however,  is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?

The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.

On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.

My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anticolonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.

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Filed under Cambodia, France, Isabelle Huppert, Political/social films

Coup de Torchon (1981)

“I’ve got no choice. First, I’m underpaid; second, my wife takes all my money;and third, fining you is practically a civic duty.”

In the French film Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Jim Thompson’s noir novel Pop. 1280 is transposed from the rural American South to French West Africa. And here the film becomes a blistering critique of the corrosive nature of colonialism. You can draw your own conclusions about the connection between the American South and colonialism, but the bottom line is that the film works.

It’s 1938, and the world is on the brink of WWII. While at first the spectre of war appears to be a daunting prospect for the French characters stuck in this West African outpost, as the plot spins out, it becomes clear that the prospect of imminent war is really a matter of slow bubbling excitement because it represents a shift in the doldrums and a heightened connection with the outside world. By the end of the film, war has been declared and within minutes blacks are rounded up at gunpoint as an almost carnival atmosphere is unleashed within the white power structure.

The protagonist of Coup De Torchon is the middle-aged, flabby, sweaty Chief of Police Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret). Stuck in some African town for eons, Cordier has gone to pot–physically and morally. Whereas in most regions of the planet, being the Chief of Police is a position of some importance, Cordier is regarded by the other displaced Westerners with scorn, and he’s treated just marginally better than the blacks. From the minute Cordier gets up, his days are an endless humiliation–beginning with his nasty wife Huguette Cordier (played with housewifely slovenliness by Stephane Audran) and her so-called ‘brother’ Nono (Eddy Mitchell). Blatantly cuckolded in his own home, things don’t get better when Cordier steps out the front door. Whether he’s treated like a janitor by the wealthy Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) who pisses in the public toilet right underneath the Chief of Police’s window, or whether Cordier is the butt of jokes made by the local pimps, he leads a miserable life. But in order to swallow these humiliations, Cordier pretends they aren’t happening. So when he sees his wife cuddling, kissing and fondling her ‘brother,’ Cordier resorts to petty acts, and he tries to pass off the pimps’ rudeness as friendly fun, but Cordier’s humiliations at the hands of the white population escalate until he finally asks for advice from a fellow policeman.

Cordier takes the advice to heart and begins eliminating his enemies, fabricating stories or circumstances about their deaths, and as the Chief of Police, he’s in a perfect position to exact revenge and cover up his crimes.

It’s difficult to identify with the lengths Cordier goes to swallow his pride and accept the humiliations shoved down his throat on a daily basis. Perhaps the most egregious of these humiliations are those he suffers from his wife, but then again Cordier has a mistress to console himself with, the spunky, married Rose Mercaillau (Isabelle Huppert). Cordier is basically a coward at heart and even allows his mistress to be beaten in public by her husband rather than openly challenge him. And as is typical with Cordier, he is comfortable only with sneakily attacking rather than challenging and confronting. Ultimately acts of brutality do not give Cordier courage.

The native blacks in the film wisely stay out of the way of the white people as much as possible, and the areas in which the whites and the blacks merge is often violent and explosive with the Africans on the receiving end of the erratic behaviour of the whites. A couple of scenes indicate that the social behaviour of the French offers a degree of entertainment for the native blacks–albeit if watched safely from a distance. While Cordier can hardly be described as a defender of the blacks by any means, his speeches indicate that too many years in the colonies have left him incapable of making a moral decision, and that colonialism has eroded away any standards of good and evil he possessed.

While the film from director Bertrand Tavernier gives no hint about Cordier’s standards of behaviour in his pre-Africa years, nonetheless statements dropped by Cordier indicate that his sense of morality has been scrambled by the things he’s seen in Africa:

“At first it is horrible. But then you start to think about starving kids, little girls sold into slavery, women whose sex is sewn up… God created murder out of pure kindness. Murder is nothing compared to those horrors. ”

Cordier latches on to the new, idealistic, female teacher who arrives in town to teach the natives to speak French, and while he observes that this is a noble mission, he sardonically notes that she will enable the black children “to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.” While Cordier finds the teacher admirable, it’s not long before she too is disgusted with him for his lack of moral courage.

There is the sense that far from home, the French characters act in a fashion that would not be acceptable on their home turf and that Cordier is ultimately influenced by those around him. Vanderbrouck, for example, wouldn’t be pissing in a roofless toilet if he lived in Paris and Madame Cordier might be more mindful of her neighbours if she was stuck in a small French town. The pimps wouldn’t intimidate the Chief of Police, and they certainly wouldn’t take potshots at bodies if they saw them floating by in the Seine. These actions are all indications of the general breakdown of society and indeed Cordier indicates this at one point while acknowledging that his standards have slipped:

“Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don’t use it. And in Africa the same goes for good and evil. What’s good? What’s evil? Nobody knows. It’s not much use here. So it gets rusty too. Must be the climate. ”

And with the general breakdown of society corrupted by colonialism, crimes become–as Cordier notes–collective and confused:

“I try to save the innocent but there aren’t any. All crimes are collective. We contribute to each other’s crimes. We all shot your brother. And maybe I did a bit more than my share. ”

Ultimately Coup de Torchon is an examination of the erosion of moral courage through the corrosive insidious presence of colonialism. Most of the film’s characters lack moral courage and no longer speak out against what is morally wrong. They all turn a blind eye to one egregious situation or another–with Cordier as an extreme example. He’s the low man on the totem pole while ironically he is the one who is supposed to be enforcing laws as they impact behavior in the French colony. Lacking moral courage, and unable to identify wrong from right, good from evil, Cordier begins his cowardly path of revenge but simply misses the point that revenge isn’t what’s needed: it’s moral courage that’s glaringly absent.

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Gabrielle (2005)

“What does it mean to know someone?”

Gabrielle, a film from director Patrice Chereau is a showcase for the talents of the marvelous actress Isabelle Huppert. Set in the early 20th century, the film begins very strongly with Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) leaving the train station and smugly musing on the merits of his most excellent wife of ten years, “well bred and intelligent” Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). Jean is a very wealthy man who has recently acquired a newspaper. This has led to the Herveys’ including a number of artistic types in the frequent soirees held at their lavish Paris mansion.

Jean’s musings on the merits of his wife, Gabrielle, turn into shock when he discovers a note from her explaining that she’s left him. But his shock turns to anger and recriminations when Gabrielle unexpectedly returns after discovering that she cannot, after all, leave her husband.

The majority of the film covers the ensuing hours between Gabrielle’s return and a dinner party held in their home. While the film at first presents Jean as an admiring, happy husband, subsequent bitter recriminations reveal that the Herveys’ marriage is not what is seems. With a cold, passionless relationship based on appearances, just how will this unhappy couple ‘appear’ cordial to one another in light of Gabrielle’s adultery? Gabrielle, was, before her adulterous affair, just another one of Jean’s possessions, and he admits that he loves “her as a collector loves his most prized possession.” Jean’s emotional detachment degenerates into passionate hatred while Gabrielle reveals defenses even rage cannot surmount.

This is a beautifully realized film based on the story, The Return from Joseph Conrad. The Herveys’ mansion resembles a museum rather than a home–footsteps echo in cold marble floors, and one could so easily become lost in the empty rooms. Even the dinner parties, which at least bring hordes of humans into the Herveys’ home, seem stilted and false. At times the elegant crowd constructs a tableaux rather than a room of living breathing people engaged in social intercourse. Perhaps this is accentuated in part by the dirge-like music played rather heavily by a morose guest.

At times, particularly in the early stages of the film, I anticipated a Rohmer-type quality dialogue. Unfortunately, the film never reached these intellectual heights. Wonderfully acted, the film strikes some discordant notes at several points–I found Gabrielle’s dialogue with the servant implausible, for example, and the ending unsatisfying. In French with subtitles.

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Elective Affinities (1996)

 “This tragedy comes as deliverance.”

Elective Affinities is set in 19th Century Italy. Widow Carlotta (Isabelle Huppert) and Edouard (Jean-Hugues Anglade) meet again after a twenty-year separation. Their interrupted love affair immediately resumes, and they marry quickly. The blissful couple retreat to Edouard’s Tuscany villa, but when he announces that he’s invited his friend, architect, Ottone to stay, Carlotta is concerned that their solitude will be ruined. And it is ….

Ottone spends an evening explaining how elements “give up original bonds and reform”, and he even draws a little diagram to illustrate his subject. This is so heavy-handed that it comes as no surprise when Carlotta decides to invite her stepdaughter, Ottilia is join the fun in the country–and the idea is, naturally, that the four people will be affected by each other and form new relationships.

At this point, I thought I was perhaps about to watch some sort of film with a free-love message–you know–a sort of 19th Century Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice complete with bed hopping. I was wrong. The film degenerated into an overly-sentimental, queasy, self-righteous story with a heavy moral message. The guilty twist and suffer, and the morally correct characters are, well … insufferable.

It was a little unsettling to see Isabelle Huppert play the role of Carlotta–rather a cold fish, and it was especially un-nerving to see her close-up dubbed speeches. Otto’s character was wooden, and Edouard rather unbelievable–his eagerness at several points in the film was quite nauseating. The one ‘steamy’ scene was tepid at best–and again–extraordinarily heavy-handed.  From directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Elective Affinities is based on the Goethe novel.

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Filed under Isabelle Huppert, Italian, Period Piece

Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000)

 “In this house, I serve the chocolate.”

merciIn Merci Pour Le Chocolat Mika Muller (Isabelle Huppert), the owner of a chocolate factory remarries Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), a famous pianist. Their youthful first marriage ended in divorce, and Andre subsequently married Lisbeth. Three years after Lisbeth’s sudden accidental death, Mika and Andre remarry, and they live in Mika’s splendid house along with Guillaume, Andre and Lisbeth’s troubled teenaged son.

Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), the daughter of a local foresic expert accidentally discovers that she was born in the same hospital as Guillaume, and that there was some sort of question of a mix up of the Pollet and the Polonski babies. Jeanne is also a brilliant pianist, and she is intrigued with the possibility of the mixed-up baby theory. She approaches the Polonski household and soon Andre takes her under his wing.

The first 3/4s of Merci Pour Le Chocolat is very strong. The stage is set for some nefarious deeds to take place, and the build-up of tension and suspense in the film was incredible. Claude Chabrol is one of my favourite directors, and so I really looked forward to the DVD release of this film. Isabelle Huppert is one of my absolute favourite actresses, and I try to get my hands on all of her films. She is really so wonderful with these sort of roles–perfect on the outside, but it’s the inner mind that proves most interesting and twisted. Mika Muller is just a little too nice to everyone. Why is Guillaume so estranged from his father? Why does Mika insist that everyone taste her own special formula of hot chocolate? Why is Mika so curious about Jeanne’s parentage? I was intrigued by this film, but then suddenly it was over. The denouement was not so much shocking as far too abrupt, and the reactions of the main characters to the events were just too wooden and unbelievable. This film could have been so much better, and that’s the really annoying thing. The acting was stellar (apart from the final scenes), and all the characters were interesting, but so many facets of the story led nowhere and ultimately it’s as though a big chunk is missing.

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Filed under Claude Chabrol, France, Isabelle Huppert

The School of Flesh (1998)

“Love hasn’t made you human.”

Isabelle Huppert seems to specialize in difficult roles, and The School of Flesh is yet another example of her superb and matchless talent. She seems to select and portray characters who are self-possessed and confident, but who are willing to surrender a portion of that worldly layer of independence to reveal the fragility and hunger lurking just beneath the icy surface.

In The School of Flesh Dominique (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful, single independent Parisian clothing designer. One night she drifts into a gay bar and makes eye contact with a young male prostitute/thug named Quentin (Vincent Martinez) who has a sultry pouty look. Chris–a transvestite who hangs out at the bar, notices the chemistry between this unlikely pair. Chris–who may or may not be Quentin’s pimp–encourages Dominique’s pursuit of Quentin and advises that it can be fun to pay for male company for a change.

In this relationship, Dominique has the money, power, and social connections–while Quentin has youth and amorality on his side. Dominique imagines that her money will simply remove any necessity Quentin may have to earn his own. A power struggle ensues and quickly becomes a game of destructive one-upmanship.

The School of Flesh is about the power centre that exists in every relationship, and in this film, the relationships show the nakedness of that power–the role of the pimp and the prostitute, the man who marries for money and the desire to have a normal life, and the male prostitute who accepts a keeper–all these relationships illustrate the inevitability and futility of attempting to control the love object. The acting is superb–special attention to Vincent Lindon as Chris–he’s at once sympathetic and sinister. Directed by Benoit Jacquot, The School of Flesh is in French with English subtitles.

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The Lacemaker (1977)

 The role of responsibility in love.

In the French film The Lacemaker, Isabelle Huppert plays the role of Pomme–an innocent 18-year-old Parisienne hairdresser. After Pomme’s adventurous work mate, Marylene is dumped by her married lover, Pomme and Marylene go on holiday to Normandy together. Marylene promptly meets another man, and Pomme is left to her own devices. One day, Pomme meets Francois (Yves Beneyton), a young male literature student. Pomme is quiet, unassuming, sincere, and docile. Francois–a snotty stick insect-finds her very approachable, and her lack of experience emboldens him.

Upon returning to Paris, Francois and Pomme extend their summer romance into everyday life. The relationship between Pomme and Francois is based on a chance summer meeting, but back in Paris, it becomes increasingly obvious that vast gaps in education and class create an abyss between the lovers. He wants friends and family to approve of Pomme, and he eagerly seeks their approval. Some of the very best scenes occur as Francois tries to gauge approval from his friends, and a trip to the family mansion underscores the discontent Francois feels but won’t acknowledge.

Isabelle Huppert was only 22 when she snared this role. In some scenes, she looks as awkward and as unfinished as a 13-year-old, but for other scenes, she appears to be in her 30s. In the beginning of the film, the simple joy she finds in devouring an ice cream cone is delightfully sincere, and although Pomme has no emotional outbursts, Huppert’s facial expressions and body language alone are superb. The Lacemaker isn’t my favourite Huppert film, and Pomme isn’t her greatest role, but it is a very good example of her acting ability. Joy and despondency are portrayed equally with quiet simplicity. For fans of Huppert’s, this film really should be seen. Many of Huppert’s later roles encompass much bolder behaviour (The Piano Teacher, and The School of Flesh for example), but The Lacemaker shows Huppert acting her heart out in the role of a subdued, sensitive 18-year-old. If you can get your hands on a copy of this film, it’s definitely worth watching. Directed by Claude Goretta.

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