Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
In her forty-plus year career, Isabelle Huppert has been a stalwart of French cinema, enlivening any number of auteur productions with her aloof redheaded presence. Huppert stars in two films premiering at the New York Film Festival in October, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (in theaters November 11) and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (in theaters December 2). In anticipation of a Huppert-filled fall, this month’s Costume Party takes a look at one of the actresses’ most fashionable roles, in Joseph Losey’s 1982 La Truite (“The Trout”). In this rather odd film, Huppert commands and seduces with casualwear, jewel-toned party outfits, and a variety of hairstyles.
Huppert plays Frederique, a young woman from a provincial background (seen in flashbacks) who spontaneously leaves her gay husband to go to Japan with a playboy businessman. Along the way, a series of droll encounters ensue, and Frederique’s power rises. In her contemporaraneous New York Times review, Janet Maslin called Huppert’s presence “wan” and “something of a vacuum,” and while she remains enigmatic throughout the film, it is not to her detriment. Early on, in the scene that sets the plot in motion, Huppert bowls (and does quite a good job of it) while wearing a shirt that reads “PEUT-ETRE” on the front and “JAMAIS” on the back.
This shirt, which some enterprising hipster fashion designer really ought to replicate, serves as something of a mission statement for Frederique, who consistently teases and keeps the upper hand. In these scenes she has bobbed hair and knee-length skirts, but soon she’ll be more glamorously attired.
Once in Japan, Huppert dials up her coquetry, cutting her hair to a Mia Farrow-style pixie and going to a nightclub where she has a potentially dramatic encounter with the playboy and another one of his mistresses. As soon as she walks into the club, Frederique uses her glamorous attire to mark her territory, purposefully tying her scarf around a statue.
She’s wearing a purple top, an elaborate necklace, and a patterned skirt and jacket.
She kicks off her bright blue pumps and starts dancing. All of her dance moves tend to be a bit self-conscious, making no grand gestures toward sexiness, and her seducing is kept at a mysterious distance. It’s telling that we often see her drinking a glass of milk. She seems consistently bemused. When she sees the other mistress, the woman quickly becomes jealous, and pours a drink on her, laughing cruelly. Not one to be phased by such an encounter, Frederique strips down to her pale pink lingerie, turning heads in the process.
In flashbacks to the younger, longer-haired Frederique, we see that she honed her nonchalant seduction and manipulation skills early. In the countryside, she cleans fish (an unglamorous but grossly sexually suggestive task) and uses her feminine wiles to manipulate a sleazy friend of her father into doing her bidding. She is dressed casually, in jeans and a sweater. She has yet to be thrust into the world of higher class locales and more daring haircuts, but with her attitude she’ll get there soon enough.
As she explains, at this point in her life she and her girlfriends had a club “whose aim was to get things out of men without ever giving them anything.” She mostly fulfills her subversive goal, and continues to withhold to a comically exaggerated extent, as evidenced by a downright puritanical nightgown.
Like many of Huppert’s characters before and since, we never really get to know Frederique. It’s this standoffishness that has cemented her appeal. Just look at the PEUT-ETRE/JAMAIS shirt: the actress might invite us to know her, but she’ll just as soon reject us and still we’ll be enthralled.