What's Isabelle Huppert Doing in This Third-Rate Thriller?

'Dead Man Down' and the inanities of Hollywood casting

by David Thomson | March 11, 2013

photo credit: John Baer/Film District

If Dead Man Down were a horse, you’d shoot it after 20 minutes.When I saw it, people were variously texting, eating a substantial meal, sleeping, and doing their taxes. One man laughed, and it became the most interesting thing going on, for it did not seem to depend on the movie’s lines or situations. Rather, the laugh was like a cough he could not control. So I used the time for some serious thinking: first on that odd laugh behind me, second on whether I should start this piece “If Dead Man was a horse …” or “… were a horse.” Beyond that, my real problem was wondering why Isabelle Huppert was in Dead Man Down.

Huppert is one of the great actresses in the world, and she has often been bold, generous or unexpected in her choice of parts: For instance, she is the daughter in Amour, probably because she simply wanted to be attached to that project. She has done English-language parts before, made in America: she was in I Heart Huckabees, Hal Hartley’s Amateur, and over 30 years ago she was the best actor in Heaven’s Gate, that much abused but increasingly recovered film. She works in France, of course, and she favors young, women directors as well as classic figures. It is seldom that she makes irrational choices.

So why Dead Man Down? Is it because the director Niels Arden Oplev was responsible for the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and she liked that hideous film? (Even the famous misanthrope, David Fincher, handled the same material with more grace and gentleness.) Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth Salander in that first film, she was in Prometheus last year, and here she is in Dead Man Down—this fascination cannot last. Yet, Huppert plays the Rapace character’s mother, a woman who has lost her hearing but still drifts around in engaging if purposeless ways. I realize at about this point I should describe the film and what happens. I can't. I never discovered what it was about. But it's dark, nasty, violent, and Colin Farrell never shaves. Is it just possible that Huppert was told Colin Farrell would play the lead in this film and she was astute enough to realize Farrell has been getting better recently after serving wretched time on Alexander and Miami Vice? Or did Huppert say to herself, well, if Armand Assante and F. Murray Abraham are taking parts in this film, why not me? Perhaps she was just curious to discover whether those two were alive still.

I started thinking about casting as a professional practice, an art sometimes, a madness all too often, and a trope in our lives that we need to resist. Casting is like plotting. They both worked beautifully for decades until they started to become clichés and crutches that beg to be mocked or destroyed. So let’s say a casting director suggested Isabelle Huppert for the mother. It would be a touch of class and the dollars might attract the actress, so the mother would be French—for no good reason, no matter that Huppert is often subtitled in the film. She has no significant scenes, and while it is always nice to see her, the mother could as easily have been Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Adjani, or even Jeanne Moreau (make her a grandmother, same difference). This is casting by celebrity numbers, without point or focus. It says: famous French actress—get a load of her.

This is a kind of star casting in which the personality of the character can hardly be seen in the shine of the star. It was effective in film for decades, though it infuriated actors like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. So John Wayne leaped at his surprise casting as old man Dunson in Red River, and the director Howard Hawks took a chance on a Manhattan stripling bisexual (Montgomery Clift) to play opposite him. That very creative casting changed the careers of both men, and it’s what keeps that film alive. Wayne liked to suggest he was a rugged cowboy (there was not much truth to the myth), but Clift could hardly ride a horse, and six guns were like dead weights on his slim hips.

That was casting against type, and it’s a trick loved by actors and audiences, and a mainstay of American film: so Marlon Brando (a smart, gentle soul) could be a dumb ex-boxer in On the Waterfront; Meryl Streep could be Karen von Blixen in Out of Africa and the Pennsylvania girl in The Deer Hunter; Isabelle Huppert could be the extraordinary sado-masochist sex maniac who teaches Schubert but doesn’t like to be touched in The Piano Teacher.

But that boldness goes just so far. In 1965 Laurence Olivier played Othello on screen, and it was regarded as a monument in the history of acting. But he did it in blackface, and I doubt anyone would dare do that now. And yet, why should a black actor not play Hamlet? Does Shylock have to be a Jewish actor, does he have to do Jewish schtick (which is not in the text)? I once suggested to Morgan Freeman that he could play Lincoln with a good script. He was taken aback; he thought it impossible. Yet he plays presidential figures now in poor films, and our most recent Lincoln was Anglo-Irish. Daniel Day-Lewis made a merry joke at the Oscars this year but do we really think Meryl Streep couldn’t play Lincoln or that he wouldn’t be eye-opening as Margaret Thatcher?

We are conventional about casting. We see it as a proof of realism, when realism has so little to do with good drama or movies. I heard the other day about an acting class in San Francisco, run by Julia McNeal, where she takes a group of actors and a set text and they swap roles all through rehearsal. It teaches the actors what the play’s about. When he came to make That Obscure Object of Desire, with Maria Schneider cast as the temptress who runs Fernando Rey ragged, Luis Bunuel realized that Schneider was not well enough to do the job. So he replaced her with two actresses, Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet, and delivered one of the most remarkable of his films.

I think we need to revolutionize casting. Not always, but often enough to live up to our sense of ourselves: that we are not one fixed persona—we contain multitudes. This liberty is especially appealing with terrible material, which brings us back to Dead Man Down. Suppose Armand Assante had played the mother, not as a father, as a mother. Suppose Isabelle Huppert had taken the Colin Farrell part. This may be no more than playful, but heaven knows Dead Man Down needs as much of that as it can get.

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