Byline: Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — A few days before her new film, “The Piano Teacher,” opens in New York, actress Isabelle Huppert is pattering around her suite at the Intercontinental in search of the perfect translation of a famous French maxim: la musique adoucit les moeurs.
“Music calms the spirits,” she says, hesitating. “Or is it the spirit?”
Huppert, the Paris-born star of 60 films spanning four decades, knows that those words carry more than a whiff of irony in the context of “The Piano Teacher.” The film, which won last year’s Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and gained Best Actress honors for Huppert, is the latest work of the German director Michael Haneke, a man with a Bunuelian passion for picking apart bourgeois ideas about domestic security (only without Bunuel’s sense of humor). It tells the grim story of Erika Kohut, a sexually repressed professor of piano at a Vienna conservatory whose passion for a young pupil unleashes havoc-wreaking sadomasochistic impulses.
“His work is always very violent,” Huppert says of Haneke. “When he gave me the script, he said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to do it.’ But there was enough fiction to balance the brutality.” Several of Haneke’s earlier films, like 1997’s “Funny Games,” have employed a pseudo-documentary technique to depict violence. “But in the role of Erika,” Huppert explains, “you had flesh around the bone.”
Perhaps another reason for her participation is that Huppert, who has worked closely with nouvelle vague veterans Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, is very much a director’s actress. Haneke, a cult director in his own right, has called her “the best actress in Europe, if not the entire world,” while Huppert believes that the part of Erika offers a partial reflection of Haneke himself.
“She’s scared of what she could lose by being passive,” she says of her character, a woman who, in her free time, visits peep shows and furtively watches couples making love in parked cars. “Part of what people find troubling is that Erika does what men do. She wants love, but she doesn’t want to be seduced: she wants power. So in that way, the film is a comment on how it is to be the organizer of pleasure — which is what a director is.”
Like many of the best directors of his generation, Haneke seems preoccupied with those contemporary touchstones of disaffection and numbness, or, to use his word for it, “glaciation.” To that end, he seems to have found his muse in Huppert, who may be France’s only cinematic goddess who isn’t also a sex goddess. The 46-year-old actress excels instead at iciness, fragility and intelligence — but Erika is her first psychopath.
“I don’t see Erika as a perpetrator,” she says, “though sometimes being a victim leads you to become a perpetrator. I hope people in this country will understand that about Andrea Yates [the Texas woman who drowned her children].”
But not all moviegoers will sympathize with Erika Kohut, which is partly why Huppert chose to busy herself with four movies coming out this year. (She acknowledges that she doesn’t want to be greeted with the stigma that chased Glenn Close after “Fatal Attraction.”) “‘The Piano Teacher’ is definitely a movie for which official recognition, all the prizes, really helped,” Huppert explains. “But the reason I wanted to work so much afterwards is that I felt it was exceptional in my body of work. I wanted it to be ‘a’ film rather than ‘the’ film.”
On the other hand, Huppert believes that the unique advantage of acting in Europe is the opportunity to take on difficult and unexpected roles — those roles whose scarcity has become the steady complaint of American actresses. “In the U.S., those parts for women are exceptional,” she says. “There were two in ‘Mulholland Drive,’ which is why I’d love to work with David Lynch.”
In the meantime, Huppert’s next movie, Francois Ozon’s light and wicked “8 Women,” is the talk of Paris — in no small part because it stars almost all of France’s great leading ladies, including Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart and Fanny Ardant. The film opens in the States in August, but Huppert knows that American audiences, fed on Hollywood gossip, will be disappointed to learn how little feuding occurred on-set.
“There was no ego,” she says. “Those problems come out of frustration, and none of us are frustrated professionally. Plus, we’re all well brought-up girls.”