The 2017 Golden Globes featured one legit surprise: Isabelle Huppert looking so genuinely, uncontainably excited she could barely breathe. Since the awards season began in early December, the French thespian has scooped up nearly every Best Actress trophy, due to her aces work as a disturbingly calm rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.” Now she’s added a Globe to the pile, which will almost certainly have an Oscar perched on top of it by February’s end.
But perhaps you’re not sure why Isabelle Huppert beaming a girlish smile and skipping to the stage to claim her prize could be called “surprising.” Perhaps you’re not even sure who Isabelle Huppert is. The big awards tend to go to famous faces. We get excited for their stories, like last year, when the possibility of Leo finally getting his Oscar became tabloid clickbait. If they aren’t known, then their ascendency to fame from obscurity is the story.
Huppert’s story is neither of these. She’s not so well-known in the States, at least to casual moviegoers, who probably never bothered with her occasional American films (“Dead Man Down,” “I Heart Huckabees,” "The Bedroom Window"). They probably don’t even remember that time she was on a 2010 episode of “Law and Order: SVU” that also boasted Sharon Stone.
But in Europe and to even semi-regular patrons of the art house, Isabelle Huppert is a god — one of the great legends of the French cinema. The reason it's so surreal seeing her happy is that she's almost never happy onscreen, and if she is — as in parts of "Elle," in which she smiles after fantasizing bloody ends for her attacker — it's not for pleasant reasons. Since the 1970s, she's been a fearless performer, primarily cherished for two qualities: a) her willingness to do just about any transgressive act on-screen, for just about any daring filmmaker, and b) her deeply intimidating, bone-chilling vibe. She is, indeed, arguably the screen’s reigning ice queen; if she and Charlotte Rampling ever play sisters, the world may freeze over. (In fact, now that we think about it, a “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” remake with Huppert and Rampling would do the world good right about now.)
Where might you have seen her? Perhaps in one of the three (soon four) films she’s made with Michael Haneke. The severe, sometimes scolding Austrian hellion gave her the lead in “The Piano Teacher,” an art house shocker in 2001 that found her alternately sadistic and masochistic. It was, in short, the perfect Huppert role. She got to coldly insult her younger lover, her mother and especially her pupils. At one point she even slips broken glass into the coat pocket of one of her untalented young charges, ensuring that she’d gouge her hand and never play again. In a weird way, though, she did it out of love: Better to be forced to quit now than suffer the indignities of failure ahead.
Huppert won Best Actress at Cannes for the role, and has since reunited with Haneke for his apocalyptic romp “Time of the Wolf,” played the daughter in the Oscar-winning “Amour” and is set to appear in his next film, the cheekily named “Happy End.” Huppert loves forging director-star teams. Her most famous pairing was with Claude Chabrol, starting with 1978’s “Violette Noziere,” and continuing through “Story of Women,” “La Ceremonie” (for which she won the Cesar, aka the French Oscar) and “Merci Pour le Chocolat.” Her film with South Korean genius Hong Sang-soo (2012’s “In Another Country”) was so fruitful that it’s no shock she’s set to do it again (with “Claire’s Camera,” allegedly due this year).