The best actress in the world is also a comedic genius
When Isabelle Huppert gets called the best actress in the world, it’s usually in reference to her more serious dramatic work. Could it be that she’s also a supremely underrated comedy performer, too? Her new film, Souvenir, certainly suggests so. The offbeat premise consists of Huppert as a former Eurovision chanteuse who seduces a young hunky boxer at a pâté factory. As you’d expect, it’s a total hoot, culminating in a feel-good musical number that washes away the harshness of her harrowing performance in last year’s Elle. She sings, she scores!
Of course, the controversy over Elle stemmed from Huppert playing the role with a wink. Her natural mode is to dare viewers to laugh at inappropriate moments. She not only finds dollops of black humour when wielding an axe in Elle, but there’s about 10cc’s worth of it when sniffing used tissues in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. So when she translates her fearlessness to lighter material, it’s guaranteed hilarity – and this gift tends to be unfairly overlooked.
Looking at Huppert’s filmography, there’s no typecasting her funniest characters. She can be lead or support; clown or straight-woman; wacky or subdued; verbal or slapstick; joking in English or French. Best of all, she doesn’t slum it with Adam Sandler movies (that’s aimed at you, Nicole Kidman and Al Pacino). Instead, she diligently selects her directors, and these are the best films in which she flexes her comedy muscles.
AMATEUR (Hal Hartley, 1994)
A one-time nun called Isabelle whose new passion is penning pornographic stories? It sounds absurd, but Huppert fully commits to the bit, excelling as a deliverer of droll, deadpan one-liners. She’s so good, in fact, her character’s witticisms (she’s a sex addict and a virgin – “I’m choosy”) threaten to overshadow the central crime storyline. Note that Huppert also voiced the mother in the French dub of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and has expressed a desire to collaborate with Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen. Well, if she can ace Hartley’s rapid, precise English dialogue, then what’s the hold-up?
Funniest moment: “She said I should not become a nun because I’m a nymphomaniac.”
8 WOMEN (François Ozon, 2002)
The killer twist of Ozon’s murder-mystery musical is that Huppert embodies the household’s Cosmo Kramer. As kooky Aunt Augustine, Huppert exaggerates her character’s outrageous mannerisms (she’s restless, until pinned down and injected) and even hocks saliva towards Catherine Deneuve while shrieking, “I spit on her lies!” Huppert may be famed for cool, inscrutable women, but here she shines as a mischief-maker whose cartoonish body language and charisma always enliven the frame.
Funniest moment: Augustine’s Razzie-worthy attempt to fake tears in the living room.
I HEART HUCKABEES (David O. Russell, 2004)
Kudos to Huppert for depicting the oddest oddball out of an extremely eccentric ensemble. In one scene, her character, Caterine, plays footsie under the table while deadpanning, “Human drama is inevitable.” Then, two minutes later, she’s getting down ‘n’ dirty in the mud to demonstrate her thesis. Though Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin accelerate the screwball tempo, it’s actually Huppert earning the chuckles with a slower, more pronounced enunciation of ridiculous dialogue. “Existence is a cruel joke,” she declares, and you laugh because it’s true.
Funniest moment: A romp in a swamp with Jason Schwartzman.
IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (Hong Sang-soo, 2012)
In Sang-soo’s fish-out-of-water comedy, Huppert plays a trio of women, each called Anne, who visit a Korean seaside for soju-soaked, language-based misunderstandings. (The filmmaker iteration of Anne is rumoured to be based on Claire Denis.) Throughout the triptych, Huppert stumbles into the path of the same lifeguard, which creates three mini romcoms; in each, he awkwardly chats her up in broken English (“You want to go in?” he asks, pointing at a tent) and she deftly plays along with a light, understated comic touch.
Funniest moment: Driven by loneliness, she attempts to converse, bleats and all, with an unresponsive goat.
TIP TOP (Serge Bozon, 2013)
Forming an R-rated comedy detective duo with Sandrine Kiberlain, Huppert sets out to investigate a mysterious murder. Nevertheless, her crime-solving regularly paves the way for her private passion: violent, knockabout sex. The slapstick lovemaking seeks to shock (she begs her toy boy to smack her in the face) and it’s this unsettling tone that, like Elle, gets under your skin. Wearing her bruises like badges of kinky honour, she spends much of the caper chasing baddies with an extra kick in her step. With a script this deranged, only Huppert can pull it off.
Funniest moment: The lizard-like manner that Huppert sips blood dripping down her forehead.
Souvenir opens in cinemas on June 23