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The supremely dark 45-year career of actress Isabelle Huppert: 6 films streaming right now

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The year is 2017 and Donald Trump is the misogynist-in-chief. What better time than now for French actress Isabelle Huppert to finally (kind of) cross over into the consciousness of the American filmgoer?

This year, Huppert won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Dramatic Film for her role in Elle, a deeply disturbing French-language drama about a woman methodically tracking down her rapist. While she lost the Oscar for Best Actress to Emma Stone (who won it for a very different kind of movie), this seems like a wonderful opportunity for the American public to learn about Huppert, who has spent the last 45 years or so making bold, provocative, and increasingly “extreme” films (especially in the 21st century).

Here are six of the most representative films from Huppert’s daring career (virtually all of which—both the films and the discussions of them—should come with trigger warnings).

Title: Going Places (1974)

What it is:
The film that launched the careers of Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, Going Places (in French, Les Valseuses, which can be translated as “The Testicles”) was a shocking blockbuster that brought French cinema to new heights of depravity.

Ostensibly a road movie, it follows sexy young French people as they fuck, murder, and steal their way across France. The debut film of director Bertrand Blier, Going Places seemed to represent the final death of whatever idealism had once animated the French cinema, and still manages to piss off most viewers (your humble blogger found himself revolted time and time again; Roger Ebert called it “the most misogynistic movie I can remember”).

But if you want to see Isabelle Huppert at the beginning of her career, and in a film that seems emblematic of the “extreme” and provocative roles that she so frequently takes on, you can’t really get around Going Places. You certainly don’t have to see it twice.

Where it’s streaming:
Amazon.

Title: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

What it is: There comes a time in the career of every non-American actor when they decide that they need to “cross-over” into American film. Huppert reached this decision in 1981, and there was no vehicle more promising than Heaven’s Gate, American director Michael Cimino’s hotly anticipated follow-up to The Deer Hunter (1978).

An epic Western starring a bunch of big names, Heaven’s Gate was one of the biggest, most reviled flops in movie history. Hated by critics, ignored by audiences, accused of appalling cruelty to animals (it is likely to remain the only film to include the unsimulated blowing up of a horse with dynamite), Heaven’s Gate was a catastrophic career choice for Huppert (and everyone else involved, but especially Huppert, who was new to the American public at the time in a way that co-stars Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken weren’t).

Never mind that the film has since undergone a major critical reappraisal, and is regarded in some quarters as a masterpiece; for Huppert, the take-away was that her career path ran through Europe for the foreseeable future.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: Every Man for Himself (1980)

What it is: Every few years, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard likes to declare the death of cinema, which remains dead until the release of his next movie, typically in a different style and film stock.

By 1981, he’d worked his way through hip genre exercises, Maoist agitprop, and experiments in early video before coming to Every Man for Himself, a return to “mainstream” filmmaking (comparatively speaking) and the blueprint for much of his work for the rest of the '80s.

The plot’s not really important (Godard was no longer interested in telling a story by this point), but among other things, the film stars Isabelle Huppert as a prostitute initiating her sister into the trade, the kind of extreme subject matter that would become increasingly prominent in Huppert’s later career. Released the year after Heaven’s Gate, Every Man for Himself provides proof of Huppert’s French avant-garde bone fides.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Filmstruck.



Title: La Cérémonie (1995)

What it is: La Cérémonie is an alternately fascinating and horrifying depiction of the unlikely killings perpetrated by postal clerk Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) and housemaid Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire).

Based on the same real-life murders that inspired Jean Genet’s play The Maids, La Cérémonie is a late career masterpiece for French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol (so often hidden in the shadows of better respected colleagues like Godard and Truffaut) and represents the high point of a series of collaborations between Chabrol and Huppert.

Channeling Alfred Hitchcock (hero to many French New Wavers), La Cérémonie is an unflinching (and satisfyingly suspenseful) look at the deadly nexus between the misogyny and class hatred that we would so often prefer to pretend doesn’t exist (and by “we” I mean those of us privileged enough to be able to maintain such an illusion).

Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Filmstruck.



Title: In Another Country (2012)

What it is: In this remarkable departure for Huppert in the 21st century, nothing terribly bad happens to her in this movie. Directed by South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo—famous for minimalist films about people reuniting with old friends, drinking way too much, and saying things they can’t take back—In Another Country finds Huppert playing three variations of the same character: Anne, a Frenchwoman, is variously a filmmaker, a mistress, and a housewife, each of whom make their way through the same Korean coastal town, having awkward English exchanges with the locals, and trying to find the local lighthouse, which she’s been assured is a landmark but which probably doesn’t exist. A charming picture of dislocation and miscommunication, the dry comedy of In Another Country is a testimony to Huppert’s range and charm.

Where it’s streaming: Fandor.



Title: Elle (2016)

What it is: Huppert has never shied away from “extreme” material, especially in the 21st century, where films like The Piano Teacher (2001) and Abuse of Weakness (2013) have found her subjected to all manner of indignity and horror. Elle is definitely in that vein.

Huppert plays Michèle, a woman with a complicated past and present: her father was a spree killer, she’s alienated from the rest of her family, she’s the sole woman in charge at a videogame company where her male employees resent her because she’s a woman. When she’s raped in her home by a masked intruder, Michèle maintains a tranquil exterior as she begins to methodically investigate all the dubious men in her life so as to track down her assailant.

A compelling and very disturbing film (which should come loaded with trigger warnings), Elle represents the return to the screen of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, director of such varied films as RoboCop (1987), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997). Elle is his first French movie, and finds him straddling the fence between exploitation (it is in many ways a rape-revenge movie, like The Last House on the Left (1972)) and a serious examination of the violence and terror to which women are subjected, as relevant in the United States as in France.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.