In the opening scene of Elle, a videogame executive named Michèle is being raped by a home invader. Once her attacker escapes, the stunned woman rises from the floor and slowly cleans up the broken tableware that was knocked to the ground during her assault. Literally and metaphorically, she’s trying to pick up the pieces.
Michèle is played by Isabelle Huppert, who had a remarkable 2016. In the span of four films—Elle, Things to Come, Louder Than Bombs and Valley of Love—the 63-year-old actress repeatedly portrayed women whose lives have been shattered, often because of the actions of others. Divorce and spiritual isolation are common refrains, as was the hypnotic hold she has on her fellow characters—even, in one case, after she’s dead. But although the films vary in genre, the slow, restrained perseverance Huppert brings to her roles connects them—often, absorbingly so.
Huppert has been a celebrated international figure for 40 years. In her native France, she’s been nominated for 15 César Awards, and she’s won Best Actress twice at the Cannes Film Festival, where three of her four 2016 releases debuted. Along the way, in powerfully controlled, gutsy performances in movies such as The Piano Teacher and White Material, she has developed a reputation for being, as one New York Times headline put it, “The Ice Queen.” In that 2005 profile, writer Gina Bellafante observed, “Ms. Huppert surely possesses the most regal carriage of any actress working today. It provides the platform for the impassivity that has marked her film career for more than three decades.”
Impassivity is the mask Huppert’s characters wore this year to ward off other emotions—or to keep adversaries at bay. Over and over, these women seem to be stoic because they feel they must be: Their sadness is so acute that if they acknowledge it overtly, they could crumble and never be put back together. The considerable beauty in these performances comes from watching how Huppert negotiates her characters’ brittle path toward some kind of contentment.
In Valley of Love, which debuted at last year’s Cannes, she plays what might be considered a fictionalized version of herself. As a French actress named Isabelle, she meets up in Death Valley with her ex-husband, a French actor named Gérard (Gérard Depardieu), to honor their late son’s final request: In his suicide note, he asked them to visit the picturesque California locale with the promise that he would magically appear.
A marital drama infused with a steady undercurrent of metaphysical strangeness, writer-director Guillaume Nicloux’s slightly surreal film goes a long way on the prickly rapport of the two actors, who previously costarred in Going Places and Loulou. Huppert’s Isabelle is still trying to come to terms with her son’s death, which happened about eight months earlier, but she’s also coping with the dissolution of her current marriage and this uncomfortable reunion with Gérard, who might still be in love with her.
Like each of Huppert’s four characters, Isabelle is at a crossroads, and what’s sublime about the performance is how much side-eye steeliness the actress brings to the part. Isabelle’s withering stare, which can quickly turn to a glare when dealing with annoying American tourists staying at the same trashy hotel, is the last refuge for a woman who’s come to expect very little out of life—which probably explains why the character is so jolted by what she perceives as her dead child’s nocturnal visit from the afterlife. Valley of Love is an enigmatic movie that offers little in the way of resolution, and Huppert’s cool reserve is perfectly suited to the material. Like the film, she pulls us in because we’re hungry to know more.
Huppert’s other 2015 Cannes film that finally made its way to U.S. theaters this year, Louder Than Bombs, also deals with a ghost—except, this time, she is the dearly departed. Once again playing a character named Isabelle, Huppert is a celebrated war photographer who discovered that the trauma of the battlefield was as jarring as the banal comforts of domestic life. The grieving members of her household (including husband Gabriel Byrne and sons Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid) are, still three years later, trying to find a satisfying answer to a question: Did Isabelle die in a car accident, or was she suicidal and intentionally crashed her automobile?
Director Joachim Trier’s ensemble family drama flips from the present to the past, but in both sections, Huppert dominates. Even if Isabelle isn’t there in a physical form, her character haunts Louder Than Bombs. She’s the unknowable wife to Byrne’s timid husband. And she’s a very different mother to her two children, both young men drawn to her magnetic personality, favoring her over their ineffectual father.
Because Louder Than Bombs never provides a definitive answer to its central riddle, Huppert must supply enough hints to leave us guessing. It’s a performance of exceedingly ethereal power—every scene with Isabelle is quite possibly some other character’s perception of that moment, and so we’re always observing this woman through the prism of another’s perspective. But the actress doesn’t leave Isabelle to be some grand puzzle: Near the film’s end, she delivers a monologue about the odd disillusionment she feels about coming home from a war zone, only to find that her family has learned how to be self-sustaining during her long absence. The scene is one of the year’s most devastating, communicating how emotionally adrift this photographer feels—and also how, ultimately, she has no home anymore.
The loss of home—and with it, the loss of identity—is even more poignant in Things to Come, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s delicate character study about a middle-aged philosophy professor who loses her cheating husband and dying mother in quick succession. Huppert plays Nathalie, a beautiful, intelligent writer forced to restart her life after she files for divorce and buries the woman who raised her on her own. Nathalie’s sophisticated air attracts the attention of men around her—including, memorably, a creepy stalker at a movie theater—but for much of Things to Come, she must live in the solitude of her own mourning.
Nathalie may be grieving for the world she’s lost, but Huppert doesn’t give in to the material’s melodramatic potential. Instead, the portrayal is withdrawn, recessive, patient. Repeatedly this year, Huppert expressed acres of emotion through quiet contemplation, her still face a rich reservoir of unexpressed feelings and silently remembered experiences. There’s also a hint of … it’s not exactly disappointment but, rather, a reluctant acceptance that life rarely works out the way we want it to. Nathalie’s search for a new life amidst the shattered fragments of her old one is touching and weirdly inspiring, but Huppert is comfortable exuding the character’s inherent sadness in letting go of what once seemed the most important elements of her existence. To call such a performance icy would be to ignore the almost unbearable amounts of humanity coursing through it.
Huppert’s finest role this year twists Things to Come’s middle-aged uncertainty into something nastier and funnier without sacrificing the underlying poignancy. A sensation at this May’s Cannes, Elle is a jet-black comedy that doubles as a psychological thriller. After she’s raped, the pragmatic Michèle tells no one and gets back to her highly demanding work in the competitive world of gaming. Pre-Cannes buzz suggested that director Paul Verhoeven’s film would revolve around Michèle’s pursuit of the masked man who attacked her, but that’s not quite right. In reality, Michèle’s attack is but one of several stresses dueling for her attention: Besides the imminent release of her company’s long-delayed new videogame, she’s also dealing with an ill-advised affair with her best friend’s husband (Christian Berkel); the realization that her idiot son (Jonas Bloquet) is engaged to an opportunistic woman (Alice Isaaz) who’s tricked him into thinking she’s pregnant with his child; and an ex-husband (Charles Berling) she still loves who’s dating a gorgeous young aerobics instructor.
Incredibly, those aren’t all the anxieties weighing on Michèle—there’s also the little matter of why random strangers keep admonishing her in public—but they create significant background noise to her concerns about who this rapist was and whether he’ll strike again. (Spoiler alert: He will.) But despite all that, Elle can be stunningly funny and even sexy, with Huppert playing Michèle as a high-powered, driven businesswoman who, since a scarring childhood trauma, has learned that she can’t rely on anyone else and that it’s best to keep moving forward. Whether slyly courting her married, upstanding Christian neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) or dressing down her young, hostile male employees, Michèle is the epitome of all of Huppert’s characters this year: She’s an unrepentant survivor, never looking for sympathy but absolutely commanding our respect and admiration.
Near the end of Elle, someone asks Michèle if she’s considered moving after her terrifying ordeal with her rapist. Without a shred of emotion, she responds, “I’m not going anywhere.” That was Isabelle Huppert in 2016: unflinching, immovable and unrivaled.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.