Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Isabelle Huppert in Cactus (1986)

Peter Cox’s Cactus begins with one of the most audacious and stunning single takes I’ve ever seen. The camera starts with three people on the balcony of wooden house in semi-rural Australia, it sweeps gracefully away through their garden then up over the trees to view the distance. Onwards and down it comes back to the actors, as two of them go down the steps, get into a car and drive off…

The whole shot is almost five minutes long and sets the visual tone for this remarkable film which is essentially about sight, how we see ourselves and the impact of the external on our internal decisions and direction.

Isabelle Huppert is Colo, a woman holidaying with friends in Australia, who is attempting to re-focus her life after she has resolved to divorce her husband. Her car journey at the start ends in a crash and she loses the sight in her left eye. This loss begins to affect the sight in her good eye and she is told that, unless her eye is removed she will lose the sight in the other. A horrible choice and one she is understandably reluctant to make.

She meets a blind man Robert (Robert Menzies) and they become close as he describes the world of the blind “there’s nothing to be frightened of here”, as she begins to grieve the loss of her sight and to face up to the terrible choice she must make: is she prepared to go blind in order to keep her self intact? And will she stay in her reduced circumstances with Robert or be lured back to Paris by her rich husband: are there more important questions of love and self-realisation than sight?

Throughout Cox’s camera glides gracefully through this beautiful locale, the colours are rich in texture and he repeatedly returns to the view of the horizon central to the opening sequence. These are the pleasures of sight.

More local colour is provided by a mix of non-actors who add some real depth to the cultural circumstances in the way that Michael Powell used “civilians” in Edge of the World and Canterbury Tales. Is this perhaps a legacy of Cox’s documentary-making past? There’s also a debt to Antonioni as well, not just with the opening sequence but also in the depiction of the impact in identity of the central character of her changes in capability.

The story is a very personal one for Cox who’s mother had suddenly lost her sight “…her courage gave me hope and her peace had a great visionary aura.”

The passion and the skill he shows in telling this tale do him great credit – this is a brave film that confronts an uncomfortable and almost taboo subject matter head on. Cox’s direction appears quite contemporary and the film feels timeless not just in its use of flashback but also in its naturalistic technique.

Languid tracking movements through foliage are juxtaposed with a controlled soundtrack that moves “found” sounds in and out of focus – eerie birds’ cries impose themselves on the peaceful landscape whilst characters move from almost silent contemplation through the abrupt noise of traffic. There is no composed soundtrack as such just music that suits including some haunting choral pieces.

The camera focuses intently on the characters’ faces in a very intimate way and there are cuts from past to present in order to show the characters’ thoughts and inner selves. And, has there ever been an actress more capable of performing this kind of tale than Isabelle Huppert? She is superb, so full of human depth and capable of drawing us in to make us think our way through her predicament like a modern-day Asta Nielsen or Greta Garbo. So restrained and yet powerfully nuanced in expression. You feel like you can “see” her thought processes, pretty much in the way Clarence Brown described Garbo at her best.

As a non-French speaker, I’m more used to seeing Huppert in “silent” mode than many modern actors. Reading the subtitles as intertitles you pay more attention to her expression than if you were able to follow her words more quickly and clearly? But she is the perfect film actress in this respect, her great range of expression is always used in a controlled way – her intelligence is always in evidence.

So, it is very interesting to “hear” her in English. A number of her “foreign” language films have been disappointing, Bedroom Window and Huckabees weren’t really worthy, although Amateur and, given a chance, Heaven’s Gate were. Cactus is certainly made for her and Cox plays absolutely to her considerable strengths. She isn’t over-loaded with dialogue – her own challenge to act through a wall of linguistic interpretation – and is the visual fulcrum throughout.

There are a great many close-ups, some uncomfortable, as Colo has her eyes examined and “threatened”… and Cox makes the most of this with, at one point, a clever natural reflection placed directly onto her eye-level after she has walked around the room. Huppert’s face has an endless fascination in our household where her fellow redhead, Catherine, shares its inscrutable power, beauty and grace!

Cactus is one of Huppert’s best movies in English and I shall certainly seek out more of Peter Cox’s work. It’s an exceptional performance from a truly outstanding actress - certainly one of the best of her generation and for my money, almost anyone’s! For, if Isabelle Huppert isn’t the World’s Greatest Living Actress who is?

Cactus is available from Buy it!

1 comment:

  1. Very sensitive and thought provoking writeup -
    thank you ithankyou