In November of 2020, a handful of months before a deadly virus would throw the world into disarray, The New York Times published a story that activated the fingers of Film Twitter. The list, titled “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far),” comprised critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s picks of “the performers who have outshone all others on the big screen in the last 20 years.”
Though cineastes took issue with a number of puzzling omissions, such as Meryl Streep, few could argue with the screen titan sitting at No. 2 on the list: Isabelle Huppert. “Huppert is known for embracing extremes, though I see this as an interest in the fullness of existence, including the disgusting and the taboo,” Dargis wrote, adding, “I love that she forces me to look even when I don’t want to.”
As Maria Vial, a French coffee supplier trapped in an African country torn apart by civil war in Claire Denis’ White Material, she is a paragon of pertinacity, the blinking eye at the center of a tornado. Michèle Leblanc, of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, toys with the audience via subverting their expectations for how a rape victim “should” act. And her Erika Kohut, polestar of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, enthralls—a tormented masochist teaching us hard lessons about women’s power and fragility. One of the all-time great cinema performances, to be sure.
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