Benoît Jacquot’s new film, Villa Amalia, is about many things. It’s about memory, abandonment, desire. It’s about fathers and daughters. It’s about getting lost, and finding peace. But really it’s about the face of Isabelle Huppert.
There are three kinds of film star. There are the icons, who play, in essence, the same role time and time again, their faces imprinted on our memories. There are the chameleons, those remarkable shape-shifters who reinvent themselves with every role. And there are, once or twice a generation, those rare stars who are both: who create unique, completely realised characters while remaining absolutely, distinctively themselves. From The Piano Teacher to La Ceremonie, Les Valseuses to Le Temps du Loup, Huppert’s characters share a darting intelligence, a steely-cold gaze and an absolute emotional transparency: her every thought and feeling transmits directly to the screen. She can be haughty — no-one raises an eyebrow like Huppert — flirtatious, even predatory, and there’s a terrifying bleakness to The Piano Teacher that few performers would risk. But she has also a delicious, deadpan humour, as she showed in Hal Hartley’s brilliant Amateur, in which she plays Isabelle, the nymphomaniac nun.
Villa Amalia is by no means her best film. She plays Ann, a musician, whose life is sliced wide open when — in the opening moment of the movie — she sees her long-time lover kiss another woman in the street. Her reaction is to leave, not just the relationship but her home, her career, even her country, as she sets off on a voyage of self-discovery that takes her physically across Germany, Italy and Greece, and emotionally back to her childhood, and the father who left her.
If this sounds like an almost parodically French movie — well, it is. It’s rambling, capricious and at times frustrating, an existential journey that offers little consolation at the end. But it’s also beautiful, provocative and tender, as Ann rediscovers an old friendship with a boy she loved at school. And above all it’s a further reminder that in a film world peopled by celebrities there is still, as there will always be, a place for real, soaring stars.