An extraordinary performance can elevate an indifferent film, giving it depth and meaning it wouldn't otherwise be capable of. "La Vie Promise" reminds us of what French-speaking viewers have never lost sight of: that Isabelle Huppert is incontestably one of the very great screen actresses.
A mainstay of French cinema since she was a teenager (Claude Sautet's 1972 "Cesar and Rosalie" was one of her first appearances), Huppert has grown in assurance and skill as the decades have passed. But since her work in English is infrequent, American audiences -- who have not kept up with her career and who perhaps vaguely remember her from Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" or Curtis Hanson's "The Bedroom Window" -- will be overwhelmed by what a mature and forceful presence she has evolved into.
Always with Huppert you feel the intensity of her commitment to her roles, a fierce integrity that compels her to push through to the best possible work, that makes settling for the merely adequate not an option.
In "La Vie Promise," directed by Olivier Dahan, she takes the most familiar type of material and attains impeccable results. For what could seem more standard than a prostitute faced with a crisis and forced to re-examine her life.
As written by Agnes Fustier-Dahan, Sylvia sounds like your standard issue streetwalker based in Nice, but when Huppert is involved nothing is ever standard issue.
First, with her hair long and blond and her face a hardened mask, the actress is almost physically unrecognizable as Sylvia. Playing a ravaged beauty partial to Jim Beam, constant pills and turquoise nail polish, Huppert has so convincingly transformed herself that you believe the tattoo she displays would have to be real and not something a makeup person might have applied.
Sylvia is also a person who has made emotional indifference a way of life, a characteristic that Huppert, who does cold as well as anyone, knows how to make her own.
When she is approached in a parking lot by her 14-year-old daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), who has run away from a foster home, her first instinct is to scream: "I'm not responsible for you."
But Laurence, displaying some of her mother's stubbornness, refuses to get lost. She inserts herself in a confrontation between Sylvia and her pimp and, as a result, the women feel they have to flee the city together -- even though their mutual antagonism makes them not the best of traveling companions.
When Sylvia decides she will seek out a man she has not seen in years but whom she had another child with, a furious Laurence, who knows nothing of this, screams, "How many lives did you have?" while Sylvia screams back, "I don't have to tell you my life story."
"La Vie Promise" is the story of the disjointed journey these women make, and though director Dahan's style is low-key, the film has numerous unsatisfactory aspects, including flimsy contrivances not the least of which is having Laurence suffer epileptic fits.
"La Vie" is also heavily reliant on major coincidences -- many of them revolving around Joshua (Pascal Greggory), a man the women meet on the road who has secrets of his own. And it leans far more on nature and flower imagery and on notions of the inner child than it can comfortably support.
Another, more successful quirk of Dahan's style is his weakness for American country rock music. Songs by Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams and others are on the soundtrack. When Williams' haunting "I Envy the Wind" plays behind a shot of Sylvia torn by regret, for a moment everything falls into place.
Initially Sylvia is a harried, trapped animal, haunted by who knows what as she draws deep breaths on her constant cigarettes. But even within this frame Huppert weaves moments of unexpected quiet and grace: a crucial hesitation as Sylvia decides whether to board a train, a child-like joining of her hands as she says, "Please."
It all does come down to Huppert with this film, to the moods, emotional states and character moments she can create, to the delicate magic she can work on screen.
Everything she does as an actress is subtle, and the way that Sylvia ever so imperceptibly changes as the film progresses is a surprise to her and to us.
"I feel like I'm moving through someone else's life," Sylvia says at one point. Whoever's life it is, Huppert's combination of fragility and steel compels our involvement in it absolutely.
'La Vie Promise'
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: An act of violence, brief nudity, adult subject matter.
Isabelle Huppert ... Sylvia
Pascal Greggory... Joshua
Maud Forget ... Laurence
Andre Marcon ... Piotr
Fabienne Babe ... Sandra
A La Chauve-Souris production, released by Empire Pictures. Director Olivier Dahan. Producer Eric Neve. Screenplay Agnes Fustier-Dahan, Olivier Dahan. Cinematographer Alex Lamarque. Editor Richard Marizy. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles.