One of the most enduring and respected actresses in French cinema, Isabelle Huppert is known for her versatile portrayals of characters ranging from the innocent to the sultry to the comic. Born March 16, 1955, in Paris, Huppert graduated from the Paris Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique and made her first film, Faustine et le Bel Été, when she was 16. Her career accelerated rapidly, and she soon found work with such acclaimed directors as
Bertrand Blier, with whom she made Les Valseuses (1974), a film also notable for making a star out of Gérard Depardieu; Otto Preminger, for whom she appeared in Rosebud (1975); and Claude Chabrol, with whom she would make a series of films, starting with 1978's Violette Nozière, for which she won a Best Female Performance award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Also in 1978, she won a British Academy Award for Best Newcomer for her role in La Dentellière (The Lacemaker).
Huppert's career in the 1980s commenced fairly inauspiciously, with a part in the legendary flop Heaven's Gate (1981), but it soon picked up with starring roles in Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon (1981), Jean-Luc Godard's Passion (1982), and Diane Kurys' celebrated Entre Nous (1983). Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Huppert made an impressive number of films in her native country, collaborating with Claude Chabrol on 1988's Une Affaire
de Femmes (Story of Women), the widely acclaimed Madame Bovary (1991), and La Cérémonie (1995), for which she won a 1996 Best Actress César. Since the Heaven's Gate fiasco, Huppert's work in American film has been minimal, a worthwhile exception being her role as a nun-turned-nymphomaniac writer of pornographic fiction in Hal Hartley's Amateur (1994). In her native France, Huppert has become something of an institution, continuing to work prolifically on such films as Benoît Jacquot's L'École de la Chair (1998) and serving as the 24th president of the César Awards in March 1999.
Despite the fact that American audiences remained sadly unaware of Huppert's success overseas, her performances in Jacquot's False Servant and the historical drama Saint-Cyr (both 2000) found her meeting challenging roles head on to captivating effect. The sometimes disturbing films she appeared in may not have been the easiest for audiences to digest, but they certainly cemented her belief that the art of acting is a means of "living out one's insanity," and no matter what the subject matter or quality of the actual film, Huppert remained a consistently compelling screen presence. Huppert's success in Chabrol's Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000) came as no surprise to many given her successful track record with the enduring director, and the following year she would once again come under the international spotlight for her remarkable performance as a sexually repressed and self-destructive piano teacher in director Michael Haneke's confrontational drama The Piano Teacher (2001). Her fearless powerhouse performance shocked audiences worldwide and earned Huppert a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was soon counterbalanced by director François Ozon's popular international black comedy 8 Women the following year. A campy, freewheeling musical mystery starring some of the biggest female stars in French cinema, the film came as an unexpected but infectious jolt of originality to audiences whose skin had been worn thin by a recent spat of heavy dramas.
Huppert's performance as an opinionated hooker who forms an unexpected bond with her illegitimate daughter in 2002's Ghost River benefited the touching drama well, and the following year, she was back with Haneke for the disturbing The Time of the Wolf. As with many of Haneke's films, The Time of the Wolf sharply divided audiences — some of whom saw the film as celluloid perfection and others who viewed it as unrelentingly downbeat garbage. In 2003, Huppert would appear under the direction of an American director for the first time since 1994's Amateur with a role in Three Kings director David O. Russell's comedy I Heart Huckabees. — Rebecca Flint