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16628051

16628051

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Studies in French Cinema Volume 5 Number 1 © 2005 Intellect LtdArticle. English language. doi: 10.1386/sfci.5.1.5/1
From nude to
metteuse-en-scène
:Isabelle Huppert, image and desire in
La Dentellière
(Goretta, 1977) and
La Pianiste
(Haneke, 2001)
Bridget Birchall
University of Exeter 
Abstract
Isabelle Huppert’s career has yet to be critically examined. This article begins aninvestigation of Huppert’s work, and considers her performance in
La Dentellière
(Goretta, 1977) and 
La Pianiste
(Haneke, 2001). The terms nude and met-teuse-en-scène are used as an analytical framework. They reveal that in her earlier  films, such as
La Dentellière,
Huppert became associated with passivity. Thearticle suggests that in more recent films Huppert moves away from this passivitytowards a more controlled performance. The article argues that in
La Pianiste,
the containing frame of Huppert’s body is traversed, and that the hermeneuticseal of the nude is broken. Finally, the article questions to what extent Huppert’schallenge to the objectification of the female body is successful and whether 
LaPianiste
correlates with contemporaneous developments in the representation of  female desire in French cinema.
‘Her fresh scrubbed face conceals the soul of a streetwalker’
(Jean-Luc Godard in O’Toole 1980: 47)
Godard’s observation underlines the contradictions that are at the heart of Isabelle Huppert’s image on- and off-screen. She is not only one of themost important and prolific French actresses of her generation, but shehas also come to embody the contradictory identity of women living inpost-1968 France. Despite her importance she remains an underexaminedicon of the French film industry. Documentation of Huppert’s work islargely restricted to interviews and hagiography, and little critical reflec-tion on her body of work has taken place.
1
This study proposes an analysis of her work using the examples of 
LaDentellière/The Lacemaker 
(Goretta, 1977) and
La Pianiste/The Piano Teacher 
(Haneke, 2001). It considers recent changes in representations of femalesexuality in French film. It will be argued that the two films under consid-eration mark a shift from the female form represented as mute portrait ornude,
2
to a more complex, yet still problematic, concept of the woman as a
metteuse-en-scène
3
of her image and desire.Let us consider what we mean by the nude portrait. The following is ananalysis of the nude made by Lynda Nead:
Keywords
Isabelle Huppertnude
metteuse-en-scène
imageboundarydesire
5
SFC 5 (1) 5–15 © Intellect Ltd 20051For an example of thework that has beenpublished on Huppertsee Ruscart (1989).2This study isinfluenced by BarbaraHalpern Martineau’sobservation that in
The Lacemaker 
Huppert’s character is‘defined almost exclu-sively by the film invisual terms, as aphysical presence, asa nude’ (HalpernMartineau 1977: 13).3Arguably, the termmetteuse-en-scène bet-ter describes the‘putting together’ of ascene, or in the case of our study, puttingtogether one’s imageand desires, than theterm ‘director’.
 
Subjectivity is articulated in terms of spaces and boundaries, of a fixing of the limits of corporeality. [...] The female nude can almost be seen as ametaphor for these processes of separation and ordering, for the formation of self and the spaces of the other. If the female body is defined as lacking con-tainment and issuing filth and pollution from its faltering outlines andbroken surface, then the classical forms of art perform a kind of magical reg-ulation of the female body, containing it and momentarily repairing the ori-fices and tears.
(Nead 1992: 7)
As we shall see this definition of the nude portrait can be applied toHuppert’s image in
La Dentellière.
In contrast with this regulated image,the term
metteuse-en-scène
will be used to explore her later career and herrole in
La Pianiste
. Huppert herself uses the term
metteuse-en-scène
todescribe her role in
La Pianiste.
Here she explains her reasons for its use:
In the case of 
La Pianiste
, Michael Haneke talks about control and loss of control, and he was filming a woman who I felt was more identified with thesituation of the director. This is a woman who controls her desire, exactly asthe director controls his desire and the audience’s desire. In the film thewoman is not the object of desire, she is the one who wants to control herdesire. That is why as a film - I’m not even talking about the story - as a filmit is interesting because he has changed the status of the actress in the film.That is why the sexual scenes were easier for me to do because I am not setup in the usual situation of being an object of a man’s desire, I am the onewho controls the desire of the man.
(
Observer 
2001)
Here Huppert identifies herself with the director, and suggests that she isthe author of her desire in
La Pianiste.
The purpose of this study is, then, toask if 
La Pianiste
moves away from the classical representations of thefemale form and desire that feature in
La Dentellière,
towards a moreempowered image of woman as the author of desire. However, as I shallargue, within Huppert’s body of work, the woman’s trajectory from object-of-image to director-of-image has not yet been achieved, and that herstatus as subject, as manifest in
La Pianiste
,remains frustratingly problem-atic.
La Dentellière
represents her first major success and is largely consid-ered, both by critics and Huppert herself, as a pivotal moment in hercareer (Ruscart 1989: 52; De Comes and Marmin 1985: 148; Garbarz andTobin 2002: 41). The film follows Béatrice (Huppert), an innocent 19-year-old who works in a Parisian hairdressers. On a seaside holiday toNormandy with her older, more extrovert friend Marylène (FlorenceGiorgetti), she meets François (Yves Beneyton). François is an upper-middle-class student from Paris who represents all that Béatrice is not.They are separated by gender, class and education. Despite this, they movein together, but François soon becomes frustrated with their differencesand ends the relationship. Unable to cope with her loss, Béatrice falls apartand is placed in a mental institution.
6
Bridget BirchallHuppert also uses thisterm in hercommentary (inFrench) on The PianoTeacher on theArtificial Eye DVD(2002).
 
Arguably,
La Pianiste
has had an equal, yet contrastive, impact onHuppert’s career.
La Pianiste
revolves around the frustrated desires of Erika(Huppert), a piano teacher in Vienna’s conservatoire. Erika lives with hermother (Annie Girardot), and is suffocated by their claustrophobic rela-tionship. Secretly, Erika consumes pornography and engages in voyeuristicpleasures. She embarks upon an affair with one of her students, Walter(Benoît Magimel), but he is reluctant to comply with her masochisticdesires. The relationship soon spirals violently out of control, damagingboth parties.
La Pianiste
caused enormous controversy when it opened the CannesFilm Festival in 2001. The controversy originated in the film’s portrayal of self-mutilation, rape, pornography and battery. Despite their obvious dif-ferences,
La Pianiste
and
La Dentellière
do, however, share similar themes.These themes are represented in contrasting ways by Huppert’s perfor-mance and by the films’ respective directors. They also reveal the contra-dictions inherent to Huppert’s work, her on-screen sexuality, and theprogression she has made as an actress, contradictions which we will nowinvestigate.The portrayal of Huppert’s body in the two films can be read as a powerstruggle between Huppert as object and Huppert as
metteuse-en-scene
of her image
.
This power struggle is identifiable in the way in which the twodirectors choose to frame Huppert. The close-up (and to a certain extentthe medium shot) manifests this struggle. In certain contexts, these shotscan be considered as forms of portraiture, and can therefore be seen as adevelopment of our argument for portraiture as a means of controlling theimage. It is worth considering O’Rawe’s definition of the close-up in orderto contextualize this point:
[The] Close-up is traditionally regarded in film theory as both framing thestar, and as giving an illusion of unmediated access to the character’s emo-tions, an effect of transparency, of congruence between image and essence.Richard Dyer refers to it as ‘disclosing for us the star’s face, the intimate,transparent window to the soul’.
(O’Rawe 2003: 17)
The close-up can therefore enforce a subjective reading of the star’s imageand identity, thus diminishing the stars’ capacity to control the imagethemselves. Furthermore, it enables the film-maker to naturalize theimage, whereby spectators are duped into thinking that they are seeingthe essence of the actress. The use of the close-up can, therefore, be read asa means of containing and mythologizing
4
the actress, and, in its control,pertains to a classical notion of the nude portrait. In
La Dentellière,
it willbe argued, the close-up expresses the previously mentioned power strugglebetween actress and director. The close-up is used repeatedly by Gorettaand allows him to remain in control of Huppert’s image.However, other arguments have been put forward regarding Goretta’schoice of framing. Parker suggests in her review of 
La Dentellière
thatGoretta’s use of the close-up subverts traditional representations of thewoman:
7
From nude to
metteuse-en-scène
...4Barthes has discussedthe ‘myth’ of Garbowith particular refer-ence to her facialfeatures (Barthes1993: 56-57).

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