Isabelle in the bath

The personal sexuality of actors and stars may be the only mystery they are actually allowed.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Isabelle in the bath

As I sketched last week in my outline of Michael Haneke’s film “The Piano Teacher,” I wondered over the precise nature of actress Isabelle Huppert’s beauty in the lead role, and whether her masochistic character was happy or unhappy. And I tried to suggest that the fate or predicament of Erika was significantly affected by the hiring in of Huppert. After all, in the scene where Huppert steps into her bath, clad in just a loose robe, and, with mirror and razor, cuts at Erika’s sexual parts, it’s hard not to take on the question of who is hurting whom? And why? And yes, she might be shaving herself, or trimming Erika’s pubic hair, but there is blood in the bath.

No, it’s not Huppert’s blood, I’m sure; and Erika is what you might call a bloodless creation — though not necessarily “anemic.” The blood is just red, there in the bath, or poured in by some out-of-sight props person so that it may be discovered eventually, as evidence of self-inflicted damage.

Still, it’s a tricky moment to judge. Huppert won the acting prize at Cannes for “The Piano Teacher,” and there was a lot of talk about how brave the performance was. No, the suggestion of courage isn’t because Huppert had to cut herself to get at Erika’s pudenda. I think it’s more on account of a kind of self-revelation — the willingness of the actress to play in such nakedly emotional scenes. But “nakedly emotional” makes you think you can actually see what is happening. Whereas in that bath scene, no matter that Erika uses a mirror to see exactly, we don’t see what she is doing. The camera does not track and tilt and squirm like a male member, to get a better view, to gain access. There is not even a cutaway close-up of the erogenous zone, so that we can know exactly where the blade bites.

Why not? It’s not, really, that too much about Haneke encourages notions of tact or taste. I suspect it’s rather more that, having cast Isabelle Huppert — a kind of icon, after all — he flinched from asking that much of her. If you recall, on “Last Tango in Paris,” Bernardo Bertolucci admitted that he had taken a few shots in which Marlon Brando’s private parts were visible. But in the event, he had felt such awe of Marlon, such childlike respect, that he could not actually reveal the great Nebraskan penis of the Marlon (it is said to be uncircumcised). Not that he ever mustered the same reverence for Maria Schneider, who — you may recall — is stark naked for much of the film. But Maria Schneider was an unknown then. She didn’t have the status — just a great body.

That sort of sexual discrimination should always be stressed, and it always disfigures the making of frank, artistic and important films as much as it does trash. Yet it is not quite my main point here. On “Last Tango,” Brando himself winced at Bertolucci’s early suggestion that he and Schneider should really “do it” for the camera. Brando was old-fashioned enough to reckon that actors didn’t, shouldn’t, could not do such things. Because, if they did, then every film would suddenly become a creepy, voyeuristic documentary instead of a profound, far-reaching fiction.

Now it’s easy to understand what Brando felt, I think. But it’s a great mystery as to why a terrible confusion of actor and character occurs with fucking, say, but not with kissing, breathing, walking, thinking or just standing there and letting yourself be photographed. In other words, the ultimate secret — the personal sexuality — of actors and stars may be the only mystery they are actually allowed. Which would help account for the extraordinary inflation in their sexual legend — or our passionate need for a kind of privacy, or mystique, to cloak the act.

I was talking the other day to someone whose mother had just died. My friend had helped nurse the mother toward that death for several months. And my friend — a filmgoer, an enthusiast — said quietly and simply that it would be a long time before she could take a death in a fictional movie again. Why? Because death is of a height and depth that imitation shames or degrades. And I have sometimes wondered myself whether there might not be a series of events, so profound to life, that simulation could not help but cheapen them — sexual climax, death, helpless laughter, uncontrollable rage … breathing.

I know: Once you start, it doesn’t leave a lot for acting. And, surely, most of us are moved regularly by great acting, without plunging into that abyss of not knowing actor from character. Well, we hope so, for the sake of acting and fiction. But sometimes a film comes along that asks those questions, and leaves us perched awkwardly on the lip of ultimate decency. “The Piano Teacher” is like that. Not great. Not even good maybe. But possessed by a shocking question.

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>