Isabelle Huppert as monstrous-feminine
Production still from Ma Mère 2004
Production still from The Lacemaker 1977
Production still from La Pianste 2001
Production still from The Lacemaker 1977
Production still from Madame Bovary 1991
Production still from La Pianste 2001
Production still from Gabrielle 2005
Isabelle Huppert as monstrous–feminine
Talk presented by Professor Barbara Creed (University of Melbourne) at Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, on Saturday 14 July 2007, as part of Isabelle Huppert (13 July – 2 August 2007).
Isabelle Huppert is one of the greatest actors of her generation — if not the greatest. First and foremost she is fearless; she is an actor who has never been afraid to play the most challenging roles, to play characters who range from the saintly to the monstrous. Huppert challenges and pushes boundaries like no other actor of stage and screen. All great actors are capable of expressing emotional intensities, dramatic moments and subtle nuances, but not all are prepared to run the risks associated with challenging social, moral and sexual mores. One of the most revealing comments about Huppert comes from Christophe Honoré who directed her in Ma Mère 2004, a confronting film based on a novel by Georges Bataille.
Ma Mère explores an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son. The film takes us into unchartered waters. Set on the Canary Islands, it explores a dark world of sexual tourism where holiday makers come for an excess of all forms of sexual encounters: sado-masochism, lesbianism, homosexuality, coprophilia, voyeurism and exhibitionism. Isabelle Huppert plays the role of ‘ma mere’ the great mother — perhaps even the great mother of ancient myth — whose sexual appetites are legendary throughout Europe. ‘The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit’, she tells her innocent son, Pierre. Honoré has said that he invited Huppert to play the mother simply because she was the only actress who could play this role. ‘She has the strength to choose films which frighten her but which also arouse her curiosity’.1 He points out that during the film, she is actually absent for almost half an hour. Honore said he needed someone strong enough to be a ‘black hole’ in the film. I though this a very telling comment — the idea that Huppert has the power to be absent, a ‘black hole’, the abyss that sucks in all matter, in a vortex of continuous destruction and regeneration.
Huppert was born into a middle class, liberal family and is the youngest of five children, all of whom are creative artists in their own right. She says that the two figures who made the greatest impression on her as a child were ‘the little mermaid’ and ‘the little match girl’: ‘one dies of love, one dies of cold’, she says. ‘I am surely identified tightly with these two small girls who are a bit like ancestors of The Lacemaker 1977.2 Directed by Claude Goretta in 1977, The Lacemaker is the film that brought her international fame and for which she won her first César Award for best actress. Huppert plays Beatrice, a shy and sexually innocent young woman who embarks on a relationship with a student from the Sorbonne. He is intellectually and sexually much more mature. Beatrice’s character is aligned with the lacemaker of Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name — hence, Goretta films and frames her as a solitary young woman frozen in moments of quiet isolation.
Since The Lacemaker, Huppert has played a range of astonishing female figures, some based on actual real-life women and some from fiction. She has appeared as a daughter who poisons her parents (Violette Nozière 1978), a prostitute (Slow Motion 1979 and The Promised Life 2001), a battered wife (Clean Slate 1981), a wife and mother who leaves her husband for another woman (At First Sight 1983), an abortionist who is finally executed for her so-called criminal behaviour (Story of Women 1989), an executioner (The Ceremony 1995), a sexually perverse mother in love with her son (Ma Mère 2004), and a sado-masochistic and sexually dysfunctional artist (The Piano Teacher 2001). She has also acted the roles of famous literary heroines such as Madame Bovary on the screen and Medea, Mary Stuart and Hedda Gabler on the stage.
As Claude Goretta, director of The Lacemaker, said: ‘The quality of Isabelle, is always to take the risk . . . And to understand that if one does not offer dizziness to the witness, nothing great can occur’.3 Huppert certainly offers dizziness in her explorations of the dark side of the self. Her mentor and director, Claude Chabrol, recognised Huppert’s power early in her career, and her extraordinary ability to portray the abject. She would be, he says: ‘formidable in a black, cruel wickedness. I dream to offer her such a role’.4
Huppert as monstrous–feminine
Huppert says she is attracted to ‘unusual characters’ in order to play with ‘contradiction’, to show how ‘the good and the bad live together’.5 Of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher 2001, she said: ‘Each character is, at the same time, a monster and a human being’.6 I am particularly interested in the idea of Huppert as ‘monstrous–feminine’ — a concept I have used to explore different ways in which women can represent or signify darkness or monstrousness in our society.7 In my view, Huppert in many of her roles is the epitome of the monstrous–feminine, particularly in films such as Violette Nozière, The Ceremony, The Piano Teacher and Ma Mère. Although there is a touch of monstrousness in almost all of her roles, even I think in The Lacemaker in which there is a kind of monstrousness in her state of being — her simplicity, goodness and terrifying otherness. In order to explain the meaning of the monstrous–feminine, I need to digress a little, and discuss the concept of abjection because — like Chabrol — I think that Huppert’s great strength is her ability to open us up to the abject.
Monstrousness — male and female — is essentially abject. According to Julia Kristeva, the abject is that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules’ that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’.8 The place of the abject is ‘the place where meaning collapses’, the place where ‘I’ am not. The abject threatens life; it must be ‘radically excluded’ from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self. The activity of exclusion is necessary to guarantee that the subject takes up his/her proper place in relation to the symbolic order of law and language. In other words, all societies employ notions of the abject to define those things that threaten the meaning of what constitutes the proper, human subject and the proper, civilised society. These include incest, murder, infanticide, cannibalism, masochism and sadism. To more conservative members of society, abjection might also include prostitution, lesbianism and homosexuality. Despite the horrific nature of the abject, we are fascinated by it.
For instance, many societies consider cannibalism an abject activity, yet audiences flocked to see the popular films Silence of the Lambs 1991 and Hannibal 2001, both of which dealt with the gruesome activities of a modern day cannibal, Dr Hannibal Lecter. We are drawn to the abject in a perverse way because it is taboo, forbidden. It threatens our understanding of self and society and, in the end, we must expel the abject before it becomes too threatening. However, an encounter with abject things through artistic practices, such as the cinema, effects a renewal of the individual’s sense of self and civilisation. Thus, the abject is essential to the process of defining and safeguarding what constitutes the self and civilisation. So you can see where I am heading in relation to Huppert. It is her conscious and expressed desire to challenge taboos that means her characters are constantly aligned with the abject. Her characters commit murder, patricide, incest and terrible acts of cruelty — think of the scene in The Piano Teacher where she hides broken glass in the young musician’s pockets, causing her to destroy her hands. The ultimate in abjection is the corpse. It signifies one of the most basic forms of pollution. As a form of waste (the corpse is a ‘waste’, without boundaries), it represents the opposite of the spiritual, the religious symbolic. Huppert’s suicide, by eating rat poison, in Madame Bovary 1991, presents an excruciating enactment of an abject death with its focus on vomit, bile and other bodily wastes.
Finally, abjection occurs where the individual fails to respect the law and where the individual is a hypocrite, a liar, a traitor.
Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. He who denies morality is not abject; there can be grandeur in amorality . . . Abjection, on the other hand; is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady.9
Kristeva’s claim that there can be ‘grandeur in amorality’ is crucial in respect to Huppert — for many of her actions are perhaps amoral rather than immoral. Thus we might interpret the perversity of her characters as having a strong moral dimension such as the mother in Ma Mère and the daughter in The Piano Teacher.
Thus, as I have argued:
. . . abject things are those which highlight the ‘fragility of the law’. But abjection is not something of which the subject can ever feel free — it is always there, beckoning the self to take up its place, the place where meaning collapses. The subject, constructed in/through language which creates meaning, is also spoken by the abject, the place of meaninglessness — thus, the subject is constantly beset by abjection which fascinates desire but which must be repelled for fear of self-annihilation.10
Honoré’s comment, mentioned earlier, that only Huppert had the power to represent or to be a ‘black hole’ in his film is a clear statement of her alignment with the abject.
The crucial point is that abjection is always ambiguous. We watch Huppert, fascinated by her alignment with the abject, even as we reject this alignment for ourselves. It is her great achievement that she is able to portray the ambiguity of abjection.
We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold; it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it — on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.11
In speaking about the nature of the cinema, Huppert says she is attracted to film because of its power to represent ambiguity. ‘The act of showing is valuable only for what it hides, not what it shows.’12
Ritual becomes a means by which societies both renew their initial contact with the abject element and then exclude that element. The arts — film, theatre, painting, literature, poetry — can be seen as taking the place of religious ritual in that they create a space whereby viewers can confront the abject — even if from the safety of their seats. The spectator is able to view encounters with the abject protagonist, take perverse pleasure in the gruesome sights on offer, and then withdraw secure in her/his sense of what constitutes the whole and proper self and body. Through ritual and the arts, the demarcation lines between human and non-human are drawn up anew and presumably made all the stronger for that process.
In patriarchal societies, women are defined as closer to the abject than men. Women’s abjection is related to their sexual and procreative functions. Because women are impregnated, become pregnant and give birth their bodies are aligned more closely to bodily fluids and wastes. Unlike the male body, the female body sheds blood in menstruation; in pregnancy it changes shape and swells, gives birth and shrinks, and then lactates. Historically, all societies have placed taboos on the sexual female body — on the menstruating, pregnant, birthing and lactating woman. The female body is more fluid, changeable and unstable. Her sexuality a ‘wound’ as Huppert reveals in the scene in The Piano Teacher in which she cuts her genitals with a razor. But it is a wound to terrify . . .
Because the mother is in charge of bodily socialisation, that is, toilet training, she becomes associated with bodily wastes: urine, shit, mucus, blood and tears. Tears are of particular importance because they are so central to the woman’s melodrama and the female actor. These wastes must be cleaned up, no trace left on the properly socialised body. The mother herself who refuses to relinquish the growing child, who controls and suffocates, is also abject. Partly consumed by the desire to remain locked in a blissful relationship with the mother and partly terrified of separation, the child — or even the young man, such as Pierre in Ma Mère — finds it easy to succumb to the comforting pleasure of a powerful mother. Again in The Piano Teacher, we watch Huppert’s character succumb to the power of her own mother.
Thus, women are deemed closer to the abject; their bodies are more malleable, changeable, fluid. The feminine is always that which sits on the border, is located on the edges, the margins. This is what Huppert says interests her — margins, borders. Hence she is attracted to characters on the margins: the prostitute, adulterer, murderer, lesbian, abortionist. Women are also more closely aligned to the abject — emotionally and morally. Women are permitted to express their feelings, to let emotions flow or speak through them. Traditionally, the female actor is the one who expresses emotion — a range of emotions — more than the male. It is unmanly for the male to dwell on the border, to allow emotions to speak through his body, to become hysterical or melodramatic.
Huppert’s ‘blank face’
Huppert tends to adopt two main approaches to her characters. In psychological dramas such as The Lacemaker 1977, Madame Bovary 1991, Gabrielle 2005, The Separation 1999 and Private Property 2006, her characters are sad, melancholic, and emotional — although also still capable of appearing hard and uncompromising. Sometimes she expresses her emotions through tears: at other times through her famous ‘blank’ expression. In relation to the latter, she seems to expresses emotions through an absence of emotion. As various critics have noted, Huppert is able to communicate her feelings through ‘the blankness of her performance’. She can make ‘her dull, vacant stare speak volumes’.13 ‘I’ve always felt that I have a slightly “blank” face, without real definition. So, obviously, that means I can transform it endlessly’.14 Huppert particularly presents a vacant face in films in which her character embraces the abject — in films such Slow Motion 1980, Violette Nozière 1978, The Ceremony 1995, Ma Mère 2004 and The Piano Teacher 2001. In these films she is cold and sadistic, masochistic and self-destructive. In fact, she explores sadism and masochism in extreme. ‘I like exploring monstrous instincts’.15 And she does so through — in her own words — a mix of ‘distance and emotion’. It is the distance we remember most.16
One critic writing about Huppert’s face compared her to the legendary Medusa.
Anyone who is even slightly acquainted with her knows there is something in her that devours and at the same time devours itself — a conscious assumed narcissism that fascinates, as did the gaze of the legendary deity into whose face, it was said, one must not look.17
As we know, anyone who dared to look into the face of the Medusa was rooted to the spot, turned to stone. Earlier versions of the legend said it was because of her great beauty; later versions because of her great ugliness. Perhaps this was because there is often a fine line between great beauty and great ugliness. In her films, Huppert carefully treads this line. She is able to elicit both our sympathy and our horror — sometimes in the same scene. We recoil, yet remain fascinated. This is because I would argue of her power to play, often ironically, with the abject. She aims to shock and destabilise, while at the same time drawing us into her world of terrifying intimacies.
Elfriede Jelinek who wrote the novel from which The Piano Teacher was adapted has said: ‘Other actresses are almost impossible to imagine un-made-up. Isabelle Huppert can only be imagined un-made-up, with a purpose: so that she can become that other person’ the character she is portraying.18 And strangely she does become that other person completely while also remaining herself. Yet, of course, she becomes the other because we, the audience, want this. In the end, we also bring her sorrow or perversity into being. We want her to explore abjection for us, on our behalf. This is particularly true of The Piano Teacher, which reveals what some critics have described as her ‘perverse cerebral sexuality’. One of the film’s most confronting scenes is where the Huppert character appears to want sex with her mother. Hupert says of this scene and I agree:
. . . it became about a little girl who wanted to go back inside her mother’s stomach. That’s what it was about, not about a daughter wanting to make love to her mother. It was more disturbing because it touched something so invisible and deep.19
Huppert sees her relationship with the camera/director/ audience as all-encompassing.
Pasolini spoke of the eye-mouth. ‘I’m eating you’ is what he used to say to Callas. ‘I like that. The ‘eye-mouth’ — it’s true, now I think about it, that the camera is an orifice. It’s a round, black hole, something that draws you in and doesn’t necessarily take you where you were expecting to go.20
‘Eye-mouth, round black hole’ — the abyss. Huppert feels that the camera/director/audience devours her, incorporates her, takes her in new and usually perverse or terrifying directions. The camera or ‘eye-mouth’, the black hole, delivers her to the abject and takes her somewhere unexpected. Clearly, and she has said this, acting is a transformative experience in which she learns more about herself and human nature. ‘Being an actor is quite the opposite of altruism, it’s a business between self and self, all the way — to self-disgust, I was going to say’.21 She says she is particularly drawn to experiences that hide more than they reveal. ‘Cinema is the metaphor of that: the screen both reveals and hides’.22 Yet, at the same time, Isabelle Huppert seems to hide absolutely nothing.
Professor Barbara Creed is the Associate Professor of Cinema Studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne. A well-known film critic and media commentator, she is the author of The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1993); Pandora’s Box: Essays in Film Theory (UNSW Press, 2003); and Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality (Allen and Unwin, 2003); co-author of Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism and Colonialism in the Pacific (Pluto & Routledge 2001); and co-editor of Don't Shoot Darling! Women's Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Greenhouse Press, 1987). She is currently writing a book entitled The Darwinian Screen: The Evolution of Film Theory.