Early in “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s Mia goes on an audition. She’s a struggling actor, and her latest humiliation involves her bursting into tears on the phone. She does it like a pro — and at the peak of her powers, an assistant barges through the door behind her, asking her auditioners about lunch. Mia freezes up, then realizes no one cares. Then she pulls herself together and stomps off back to her soul-deadening barista job — which, sadistically, is on a movie lot.
In some circles, “La La Land” has been written off, even eviscerated, as a mere good time — a shallow nostalgia drench that lacks the elegance of the classics to which it pays homage. It’s true, it doesn’t. You could also say that’s intentional: That the dreamers played by Stone and Ryan Gosling are fans who wish they could move and croon like Fred and Ginger. You could also point out to Emma Stone. Mia may occasionally burst into twirls and jazz hands, but when she’s not, she’s defeated. Where her co-star mostly broods, she coils up. Mia doesn’t cry or scream or even talk about her feelings. She holds her pain inside her, close to the vest. It’s a great, subtle, heartbreaking performance.
But Stone doesn’t deserve an Oscar. After all, she’s not Isabelle Huppert.
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Both are competing for the Best Actress Oscar, and the story prognosticators are peddling goes like this: The French god has been winning every trophy in the known universe for her thrilling turn in “Elle.” As our president would say, that stops now. At Sunday night’s Academy Awards, Stone will end Huppert’s death march through awards season. It will be Huppert’s Waterloo. Stone will send her back to France, where she’ll await the call to play Seth Rogen’s mom, or whatever nonsensical thing Hollywood will do with her next.
But this shouldn’t happen. Huppert should triumph once more. She should go home, drop her Oscar on top of a pile of awards numerous enough to fill a money bin, then swim through them like Scrooge McDuck. Moving as Stone’s “La La Land” turn is, it’s got nothing on Huppert’s Michele Leblanc. If the two met, Michele would simply shoot her a quick once-over, then walk away, giving her one-second of side-eye as she strides. Three seconds later she wouldn’t remember the encounter.
It’s not just about terrifying levels of confidence, or even that Michele goes through infinitesimally worse than Mia. We always know what Mia is thinking. We spend the entirety of “Elle” staring at Huppert’s face, wracking our brains to figure out what’s underneath. And what’s underneath is beyond disturbing. “Elle” doesn’t waste time: The movie opens in media res, with Michele being sexually assaulted by a masked stranger. When he’s gone, she fixes her dress, stands up, grabs a broom and dustpan and cleans up the shattered glass. Two screen minutes later she’s on the phone ordering sushi. (You might be surprised that Huppert’s endless winning hasn’t done much for “Elle”’s box office.)
We’re not qualified or comfortable weighing in on whether “Elle”’s depiction of post-rape trauma is accurate or offensively wrong. We can say the many questionable things Michele does — like, well, locating her rapist and taunting him to try again — would almost certainly be offensive without Huppert. But because Huppert beams bottomless intelligence, we’re (hopefully) fascinated, not repulsed. Michele isn’t made of stone; the movie is peppered with little flashbacks to the initial incident, popping up from nowhere, as they do. We realize Michele wants to control what she can’t control, and she’s strong enough that by film’s end she just might.
It’s an edge-of-your-seat performance, arguably the crowning achievement in a career of untold debasements and transgressions. Huppert has always been attracted to the crazies: to numerous nasties by Claude Chabrol (“La Ceremonie,” etc.), to Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher.” She’s far from an American household name, and she probably won’t become one even now; “Elle” is a hard sell, as even its fans would agree, and she’ll probably skip Hollywood and find the next Gaspar Noe, who will have her do something really super-duper-mega-horrible.
But the question of whether Huppert should triumph over Emma Stone, a talented actress who simply made a confection richer than it deserves to be, isn’t even a question. Huppert’s Instagram feed betrays a warmer, sillier person that she's ever seemed onscreen, one who's super enjoying the awards trail. Still, you really shouldn’t cross her.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge