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Last Updated: Friday, 28 October 2005, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
French actress takes New York by storm
By Damian Fowler
BBC News in New York

Isabelle by Peter Lindbergh, courtesy MoMA
Isabelle Huppert has long been revered in her native France. (Photo: MoMA)

Isabelle Huppert is certainly brave.

The 52-year-old French film star has just made her New York stage debut in a play written by the late British playwright, Sarah Kane.

4.48 Psychosis is a harrowing meditation on mental illness and suicide - a virtual monologue delivered in French with minimal supertitles.

"When desperation visits," the character says, "I shall hang myself to the sound of my lover's breathing."

But audiences here in the United States adored her stark rendition.

"It's not the Folies-Bergere," Huppert had observed.

But perhaps what these theatregoers loved was the sheer proximity to her. New York, it seems, is in the grip of all things Huppert at the moment.

Isabelle Huppert, courtesy MoMA
Isabelle Huppert is respected for not shying from challenging roles. (Photo: MoMA)
As well as her theatrical debut, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is running a major retrospective of her films; she has made more than 70 in three decades.

This selection celebrates her work with filmmakers great and good, from Jean Luc Godard to the French master of mystery, Claude Chabrol, as well as the American auteur Otto Preminger.

And if that is not enough, this weekend, an exhibition entitled La Femme Aux Portraits will open at MoMA's sister museum, PS 1 Contemporary Arts Center in Queens.

It features portraits from legendary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton and Robert Frank. The images run the gamut from freckled teenager to tragic beauty.

But what does all of this adoration mean to Isabelle Huppert? What does it mean to be feted like this, tagged as legendary, an icon?

Huppert in Coup de foudre (Entre nous, 1983), courtesy MoMA
Isabelle Huppert has been making movies for more than 30 years. (Photo: MoMA)

"I think these are just words," she says. "I think it's an exterior perception, but if it becomes your perception of yourself, then you are in bad shape, I would say."

Huppert has earned this stateside status through her body of work, not necessarily by showbiz outings on the red carpet.

"She is not a star in the traditional western or Hollywood sense of being a celebrity," says Laurence Kardish, the MoMA curator who put together the Huppert retrospective.

"She is a star by virtue of her passion. A Hollywood celebrity might choose roles that enhance their image, but Isabelle Huppert chooses roles that make her vulnerable."

Tour de force

Huppert has played many women who are seemingly quite placid but who quietly burn with hidden desire.

Her latest film, Gabrielle, is another tour de force which just premiered at the New York Film Festival.

It is a period drama based on a Joseph Conrad story that explores the collapse of an upper class marriage; the relationship deteriorates rapidly when Gabrielle decides to leave her proud husband.

But she returns on the very same day to excavate her loveless marriage.

Huppert sees the role as a cousin to Madame Bovary, perhaps the quintessential anti-romantic heroine which she played in 1991.

"These women go very far in trying to seek a certain truth about themselves and their desires," she says.

More recently, Huppert won the best actress award at Cannes for her role in the disturbing 2001 film, The Piano Teacher, in which she plays a woman with hidden sado-masochistic desires.

In each case, it is alarming to see how she transforms silent despair into something so charged and potentially violent.

'Horrifyingly honest'

So what makes her want to act? "I just expect to forget, to have pleasure. It's a very personal and private experience. But I don't think I learn," she says.

"I would say on the one hand I know who I am, and on the other hand, whatever I don't know about myself I don't think I will find out from acting."

In the United States, Huppert is known primarily for her film work, but her stage debut is a reminder to American audiences that she comes from a background in theatre; she trained at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art in Paris.

Her performance in 4.48 Psychosis has revealed yet another side to this actress - and even the tabloids could not resist chipping in.

Although some critics here were not thrilled by this chilly French production, most seem to agree that Huppert delivered a pitch perfect performance - "horrifyingly honest" said one.

"It's more like breathing for me to act," says Huppert, a few hours before one of the sold-out performances which are part of a season-long Act French Festival.

"It's not difficult; it's not a big effort. But it's a big effort for me to pursue what I want to do, so that's the effort. When I act, it's just a relief. It's just a respiration."


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