Isabelle Huppert: ‘The Best Way to Please Is Not to Please’
That near boast, tempered by a flicker of amusement, hinted at the wickedly subversive streak that has made Ms. Huppert a muse to an international roster of directors, including Claude Chabrol, Otto Preminger, Bertrand Tavernier and Paul Verhoeven. Mr. Verhoeven, of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” notoriety, directed Ms. Huppert in “Elle.” Combined with an apparently uncontrived chic, that subversiveness has lately transformed Ms. Huppert, who is mostly known in the United States to an art house crowd, into a red carpet diva and the unlikely darling of the fashion set.
Never mind that Ms. Huppert, 63, long married and the mother of three, plays a grandmother in “Elle.” Or that in her native Paris she has long been a front-row fixture at Dior, Chanel and Armani. When the cameras closed in on her as she claimed her Globe, writers breathlessly anatomized every facet of her look. As the popular Who What Wear website effusively reported, “Her incredibly chic midriff-baring top and skirt along with an earful of edgy Repossi ear cuffs have landed the actress on a number of best dressed lists and left the internet buzzing.”
The Fashion Law, another widely read blog, posted, “It is difficult not to notice that Huppert is becoming a favorite not only of critics and fashion industry insiders but of those on the periphery, as well.”
Adding her voice to the mix, Vanessa Friedman, the New York Times fashion critic, posted on Twitter on the night of the Globes, “Whoever made Isabelle Huppert’s dress should take credit ASAP.”
Ms. Huppert had selected that dress, Armani Privé, with care. “It’s important how personal and singular you feel in what you wear,” she said. “It’s important that you keep your own identity.”
Would she turn up again in Armani on Oscar night? “I might,” she offered playfully.
Whether she is captured on camera in a cream-colored trouser suit, as she was at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards in January; in a full-sleeve high-neck Chloé at the British Academy Film Awards this month; or in a pale blue trouser suit, snapped alongside Nicole Kidman on the day they received their Oscar nominations, Ms. Huppert projects a singular authority.
“She has what the French used to call chien,” said Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador for Barneys New York. He was alluding to the blend of tough chic and barely concealed sensuality that, Mr. Doonan maintains, defines Ms. Huppert’s allure.
And in viewing her image on Instagram, Ryan Lobo, a designer of the New York label Tome, responded with a single word: “Queen.” On Instagram, Ms. Huppert is followed by no less a fashion personage than Nicolas Ghesquière, the creative director of Louis Vuitton.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Huguet, her stylist, summed up her appeal as a rare combination of masculine assurance and unexpected fragility. She is hardly indifferent to fashion, Mr. Huguet noted. “She knows her brands and designers,” he said. “She is completely open to different things.” He added that she was happy to try a variety of fabrics, shapes and designers, among them Haider Ackermann and Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior.
Still, the style world’s renewed devotion has left Ms. Huppert nonplused. “After all,” she said, a bit disingenuously, “I’m not a fashion person.”
She had dressed for breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire in a crisply tailored jacket, its pale green and coral pattern setting off her shoulder-length russet hair. Who designed the jacket? Her features furrowed briefly as she removed it to check the label, exclaiming with what seemed genuine surprise: “It’s J. Crew. Can you imagine?”
The jacket, which she wore over a pale coral Chloé blouse and slim trousers, was consistent with a style Ms. Huppert has refined over time, a look that is mostly defined by slim trousers, tailored jackets and coats, understated evening wear, and the occasional provocative accent (those tiny Repossi cuffs snaking up her ear).
Immaculately assembled as they may be, her ensembles are “worn with the effortlessness that Frenchwomen seem to naturally possess,” Allyson Payer of Who What Wear posted.
It is the kind of assessment that Ms. Huppert is apt to greet with one of her ironic smiles. “Because I’m French, people have a certain idea of my style,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what that means. And not quite sure what it is that I’m supposed to represent.”
When she’s not acting, she said, “I don’t think of myself as carrying a specific image.” But on camera, she added: “Every change of outfit can help you. It allows you to see yourself freshly each time, and each time with fresh potential.”
There are times, it seems, when Ms. Huppert is all potential, her aloof, sometimes opaque, expression — “resting bitch face,” as the fashion tribes would have it — acting as potent draw. “It’s intrinsic to her, that certain enigmatic je ne sais quoi,” Mr. Doonan said.
If her mystery tends to mesmerize devout fashionistas, it’s not for the first time. Ms. Huppert herself is well aware that she has long fascinated fashion photographers, among them Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Hedi Slimane and their illustrious like.
“Her face is like a window, it’s so transparent,” said Peter Lindbergh, who has shot her many times. “When you photograph people, often that window is closed. Some people let you in, but there is a limit. But Isabelle, she is like glass.”
She also has we well a chameleonlike quality that was captured in 2005 in a show of her portraits at MoMA PS1, subsequently gathered in book form, that volume, like the show, aptly titled, “Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces.” Perhaps most famously, she posed, freckle-faced, for Newton wearing a white bathrobe that opened to expose a sliver of nipple, her expression in that instant a disconcerting blend of innocence and insolence.
Her face, she knows, can be a difficult read. “Most of the time it is more like a white canvas on which you can project many things,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s inexpressive, but it is undefined enough that it can be shaped and defined by whoever looks at you.” She laughed. “In the end something that could be seen as a fault turns out to be an advantage,” she said.
However malleable her features, however vulnerable she may seem onscreen, Ms. Huppert wants you to know that ultimately she is the one in charge. “I play a role, but I don’t transform myself entirely,” she said.
“The irony you see, the humor, the way of being cool, it’s me more than anyone else, I have to say.”
Some take it for perversity, a trait that has marked her since she appeared onscreen in the early 2000s as the self-mutilating, sadomasochistic antiheroine of the erotic thriller “The Piano Teacher.”
“What people call perverse and outside the margins, it has nothing to do with perversity,” Ms. Huppert said. “It’s more about doing one thing and maybe thinking another. That’s what we all do, and that’s what you see in me on film.”
Nor does she, in her acting, make an effort to seduce. “I’m not really interested in pleasing,” she said in her teasing contralto. “I think the best way to please is not to please.”
That refusal is one source of a sexual charisma that can defy analysis. “I don’t use the usual seductive tools,” Ms. Huppert said. “My sexuality is almost cerebral. It’s never, ‘Look at me, see how sexy I am.’”
On the screen she is permitted an erotic latitude not generally available to her contemporaries, in particular Meryl Streep, with whom she is often, if misguidedly, compared. As Michèle in “Elle,” Ms. Huppert pursues her own sexual agenda, whatever the cost. In a recent fashion feature in The Reporter, she comes off as a steamy, self-obsessed vixen, aptly costumed in form-fitting black leather.
She is also permitted a display of self-possession that doesn’t quite square with the sexual hunger she is often asked to portray on film. Some call it coldness — a Brechtian detachment, as Mr. Verhoeven remarked — or a chilly reflection of self-regard.
Does that translate to vanity? Ms. Huppert wondered, returning to a topic that she clearly finds absorbing. “If it does, I don’t care.”
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