In 2001, the legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert showed up at Cannes dressed in a vaporous black dress and with a temporary tattoo. The black lettering spanning across her arms and back read a quote from Emil Cioran: Dieu peut remercier Bach, parce que Bach est la preuve de l’existence de Dieu*. As always, her pale complexion accentuated by her red hair framed a fragile, barely outlined smile, that may have at any moment have broken into another impenetrable mask. How does Isabelle Huppert, in a one-minute appearance, leave behind such an unusual mix of discretion and exuberance, frailty and power – a stirring je ne sais quois and so much mystery?

Isabelle Huppert at Cannes, 2001 foto: AP/Lionel Cironneau

“You give a certain depth to appearance”, Isabelle Huppert usually says – the “first lady of French cinema”, who since her debut in 1971 lent her face and artistic power to more than 100 films roles transcending the borders of France. Now, at 65, with no additional layers of make-up or any aesthetic enhancements, Isabelle Huppert’s freckled and pale face reveals a noble, ageless beauty.

Apparently, it was this particular look that pushed the little Isabelle to the camera, as she had trouble finding her face in the mirror. “My face was undefined… it was a very strong feeling. Every day, I was out of focus, which is strange for an actress to be”, she once confessed to The Sydney Morning Herald (2013). She didn’t dream of becoming an actress, and yet, encouraged by her mother, Huppert enrolled at the Paris National Academy of Dramatic Arts to study acting. It was a way of defining herself, of finding herself through others – this was the start of her prolific career in cinema and theatre.

Small, delicate and frail, a bit over a metre and a half, the actress paradoxically chose a field of cinematic experiments with relentlessly violent characters, devoured by perversion, desire and suffering. “Monsters attract me”, she said for Le Monde. However, when putting on new faces her enthusiasm matches that of a scientific explorer: “I don’t justify, I want to understand.” Starting with early roles, Huppert won the notoriety of an expert in on-screen pathology: crime, rape, prostitution, adultery, and sexual deviance. It’s hard to forget the young girl who poisoned her parents in Violette Nozière (1978), or the postwoman who cold-bloodedly shot her entire family in La Cérémonie (1995) – two of her six collaborations with one of the most influential directors of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol.

I never doubt. I have absolutely no fear.

Isabelle Huppert has a preference for long-term collaborations with the same directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke and Paul Verhoeven. However, she is also known for using her fame and image to help launch the careers of talented younger directors – one example is French-Romanian actress and director, Eva Ionesco.

“I never doubt. I have absolutely no fear”, as she often says, “There are so many other areas where I am not that… crossing the street, meeting people… everything that’s vital. But with acting, nothing can intimidate me. Acting is never an obstacle.” However, this courageous approach has pushed her to get involved in extravagant, often risky projects – like Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate (1980), in which her role of a raped prostitute brought her a sexualized image as an European actress in Hollywood, threatening her career.

From one role to another, Isabelle Huppert maintains an indistinct aspect, which she herself calls interiority – the opposite of big-screen exhibitionism. Do you recall the blank look of the music teacher Erica Kohut in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) – full of an unbearable, yet irresistible ambiguity? What about Michèle Leblanc’s vacant, piercing stare in Elle (2017) – that cuts like a knife? “I don’t see why I should dis­appear behind my roles”, Huppert says.

The mirror in the actress’s pocket knows more than any of us about her facial micro-expressions and barely perceptible gestures, which she exploits with such tremendous talent. Behind the scenes, the inner volcanic forces boiling under her glacial and voracious mask remain undiscovered, though one can instinctively feel the energy of every role she plays.

Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher/d. Michael Haneke

Even though she is more famous for her film roles, Isabelle Huppert never abandoned theatre, as for her theatre is another field of ongoing self-exploration: “I’ve always wanted to play on stage, a place for self-confrontation, just like the cinema. That is, I want to play myself, not somebody else. Only myself, but through others, of course.”

On stage, just like in film, she has embodied morally complex characters, collaborating with directors known for their challenging theatre experiments: Peter Zadek, Robert Wilson, Krzysztof Warlikowski. On the Parisian stage, Isabelle Huppert took on roles like Orlando (1993), Medea (2000) and Hedda Gabler (2005). She also courageously got involved in theatrical projects on stages all over the world. In London, she performed in Mary Stuart (1996); in Sydney, alongside Cate Blanchett in The Maids (2013) and in New York, she played Phaedra (2016).

Isabelle Huppert has an impressive collection of the most prestigious cinema and theatre prizes: a record number of César Awards, an honorary Molière, a Berlin Silver Bear, multiple Palme D’Ors and EFA awards, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, not to mention a recent Oscar nomination. However, it’s easy to get lost among her numerous awards and distinctions in imagination only, as the actress would never invite you to her home. The secrecy around her private life and the decision to firmly separate the two universes from the early stages of her career is yet another reason why Isabelle Huppert is so unconventional. The mystery triggers curiosity and stirs journalists eager to discover scandalous crimes and deviance in her real life. Nonetheless, the only things they’ve found about Isabelle Huppert the person are not-at-all-shocking details about her marriage to Ronald Chammah, who directed the thriller Milan Noir (1987) starring herself; her having three children – Lolita, who follows in her footsteps as an actress, Lorenzo and Angelo; her claustrophobia and her habit of snooping around others’ things, or her weakness for broccoli. “A lot of people like confessing in public. They enjoy it. I don’t”, the actress declared a few years ago, “I keep that sort of turmoil confined to the screen”.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle, d. Paul Verhoeven /photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The Sibiu International Theatre Festival will celebrate Isabelle Huppert by awarding her a star on the Walk of Fame. Unsurprisingly, the actress will bring her performance The Lover (L’Amant), which gives voice to a controversial character from a book described by the very writer Marguerite Duras as a fictional autobiography, a novel she wrote when she was drunk. “I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure” – a randomly chosen quote from the novel, that makes me anticipate a multitude of questions: is it about the “queen of suffering”, Isabelle Huppert? The endless pleasure with which the actress gives life to totally foreign characters offers a possible answer: no, it’s only reflections seen in a brave mirror.

* God should thank Bach, for Bach is the proof of His existence.

Cover photo: Carole Bellaiche