Why Isabelle Huppert Is the Woman to Watch at This Year's AFI Fest

Huppert at Cannes earlier this year
Huppert at Cannes earlier this year
taniavolobueva/Shutterstock

If you've seen the billboards and bus-stop ads, you know it's coming. AFI Fest, still the most significant week for film in L.A. — sorry not sorry, Oscars; actually kind of sorry, Los Angeles Film Festival — begins Nov. 10. Adorning those posters and banners are glamorous stars of yore: Dorothy Dandridge, Ida Lupino and Anna May Wong, all of them luminaries of a bygone age that the free, weeklong festival, now in its 30th year, seeks to evoke.

You might not see Isabelle Huppert among those Tinseltown demigoddesses, but her presence at this year's edition of AFI Fest could hardly be more fitting. The annual affair exists at the confluence of Hollywood glamour and art-house prestige. It has two main spheres: red-carpet galas at the TCL Chinese Theatre, foreign and independent fare in the attached multiplex. Huppert bridges that gap like few others, especially in 2016 — she's here with both Mia-Hansen Løve's Things to Come and Paul Verhoeven's Elle. The former won the Silver Bear for Best Director at February's Berlin Film Festival, while Elle premiered in May at Cannes, where Huppert was touted as a Best Actress contender.

She didn't end up receiving that honor, but Huppert has already taken home the award twice, a feat matched by only three others. No actress has matched her 15 César nominations, and the list of vaunted auteurs Huppert has worked with is a murderers' row of world-cinema heavies: Otto Preminger, Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Cimino, Maurice Pialat, Hal Hartley, Olivier Assayas, Raúl Ruiz, Michael Haneke, Hong Sang-soo, Catherine Breillat. Like an international Meryl Streep, Huppert is an all-too-rare exception to the rule of actresses older than 40 receiving roles worthy of their talent.

In most years, Elle is the kind of movie that would end up in AFI Fest's World Cinema section. As part of Huppert's annus mirabilis, however, it's been chosen as the spotlight of a tribute to the actress on Nov. 13 at the Egyptian Theatre. The film, which is France's submission to the Oscars, marks the Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and, yes, Showgirls director's return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus. It begins with a rape and turns into a kind of revenge fantasy — Huppert's character reclaims her sexuality and agency in ways rarely seen on film. Elle unfolds with a logic all its own, the kind that requires you to understand its heroine before you can understand its narrative turns.

Huppert makes that a twisty, engaging task. Here, as in most of her films, she's the polestar around which everything revolves. She almost certainly could have parlayed her prestige and success into a career in Hollywood, but her English-language work skews just as small-scale: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Louder Than Bombs, I Heart Huckabees.

Huppert isn't the only woman to be so honored this year. Annette Bening receives a similar tribute in conjunction with her new film, 20th Century Women, which finds the reliably great actress in peak form as a free-spirited single mother who runs a boardinghouse in 1979 Santa Barbara. Flanked by her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann), the slightly older girl he's carrying a torch for (Elle Fanning, herself a rising star) and a wayward 20-something (Greta Gerwig), she grapples with the question of how to raise a boy into a man without a paternal influence. It's Mike Mills' first film since 2010's Beginners, another story of parents and children. Bening is the matriarch whose head lies heavy even without a crown, but she shoulders that burden with grace and poise, and 20th Century Women is a moving family drama.

Among the other nightly galas is Pablo Larraín's Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the devastated first lady in the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination. No standard biopic, the Chilean auteur's English-language debut was shot on honest-to-God film, features another haunting score by Under the Skin composer Mica Levi and eschews grand gestures in favor of a deep-dive look at debilitating grief. Jackie is tremendously sad but also what funeralgoers might describe as a beautiful service — the kind of tribute that's as much for the living as it is for the dead.

As for that glitz and glamour toward which AFI Fest is inclined, no other movie this year evokes the charm of old-school Hollywood quite like Damien Chazelle's La La Land. A musical for people who don't like musicals and a charming romance for people who hate to be charmed, it has emerged as an early Oscar front-runner. Though not actually the best movie of the year, it's certainly better than most Best Picture winners.

The down-ballot races are no less exciting. Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann might be the year's funniest movie, though her 162-minute follow-up to caustic relationship drama Everyone Else isn't exactly a comedy. In it, a straitlaced woman receives a surprise visit from her semi-estranged father, a prankster whose practical jokes tend to amuse only himself. She becomes his captive audience, though, slowly coming to understand why he is the way he is.

Not yet seen by this writer (but at the top of my list) are Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, about a group of teenage terrorists enacting a lethal plot in Paris, and Cristian Mungiu's Graduation. The latter director is among the standard-bearers of the Romanian New Wave, which has been in full force for long enough to no longer qualify as new; the movement announced itself most loudly when Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, aka "the Romanian abortion movie," won the top prize at Cannes in 2007. The country remains a cinematic hotbed nearly a decade later, and excitement at Graduation's presence here is tempered only by the fact that Sieranevada, the latest by Mungiu's countryman Cristi Puiu, didn't also make the cut.

Bonello, meanwhile, is revered on the festival circuit for films like House of Tolerance, an opium-laced account of a late–19th century brothel, but the subject matter of his latest has understandably caused many to take pause. It was passed over at Cannes and played to largely empty theaters in Toronto. But most who have seen Nocturama have praised its vision, however difficult it is to endure.

Taken together, these selections offer a snapshot of the year in film, from low-key festival fare to A-list prestige pictures. Which only makes Huppert's prominence at AFI Fest — and the fact that she, too, has been named as a potential Oscar nominee — all the more impressive: Hollywood has come to Huppert just as much as Huppert has come to Hollywood.


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