Isabelle Huppert and director Mia Hansen-Løve deliver a quietly emotional triumph. Womanhood celebrated without caveat.
Awarded with a Cesar and an Oscar nod for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s shocking Elle, as good as that performance is (and it’s very, very good) it was the quiet emotional wallop of Mia Hansen-Løve’s effervescent and similarly empowering Things to Come (L’Avenir) that marked Isabelle Huppert’s finest work last year for me.
Huppert plays Nathalie, a headstrong philosophy professor at a Parisian university in the midst of student protest, and never have philosophical musings seemed quite so alluring. A woman in full command of her intelligent corner of the world, Hansen-Løve’s screenplay, very different from her previous offering Eden, sets up a series of emotional hurdles.
There’s the unexpected collapse of her 25-year marriage to Heinz (André Marcon, Marguerite), the gradual collapse of her anxiety prone mother Yvette (Edith Scob, Holy Motors), with whom she has a fractious relationship, and her rather matter of fact dumping from a philosophy book publishing gig, largely driven by a sneering marketing department.
Whereas many filmmakers would mine these momentous life events for all they’re worth, setting the despair-ometer to maximum, Things to Come’s greatness is in Nathalie’s resilience. In a subtle echo of her role in Elle, this is a woman who processes hard knocks, drawing on a great well of inner strength and builds from there. Her successes are not measured by the influence of others, “I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually, that’s reason enough to be happy.”
Never is this clearer than her relationship with former student, indulgently anarchic and self-centred intelligentsia Fabien, played by Eden’s Roman Kolinka. Nathalie’s son Johann (Solal Forte) harbours jealousy at his highly regarded place in her life, while repeated trips to Fabien’s mountainside commune, with her mother’s goggle-eyed and cantankerous cat (almost stealing the show), burn with a palpable sexual tension, but to act on it would be to undermine Nathalie’s independent spirit and suggest that her hard-won happiness can only be validated by a lover.
Hansen-Løve is to be commended for avoiding such an obviously reductive plot beat in a film brimming with feminist joie de vivre on this International Women’s Day. Things to Come also manages to insert fellow French national living treasure Juliette Binoche in a knowing sort-of-cameo snatched from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, with Nathalie shrugging off the unwanted attentions of a seedy suitor and would-be stalker in a cinema.
Huppert, a master at work, wears each personal slight with magnetic radiance, able to convey great wells of unspoken thought in a moment’s facial glimmer. Indeed, some of the most powerful exchanges are between Nathalie and the cat she professes she does not want, but finds momentary comfort in before setting free in more ways than one. As the daughter of two philosophy teachers herself, Hansen-Løve imbues Nathalie’s passion for the subject, the intellectual succour it provides and her desire to pass on that knowledge a believable warmth of spirit.
Huppert’s Nathalie is a determinedly achieving all-mother in an incandescent film of great subtlety, with Hansen-Løve ably aided once more by cinematographer Denis Lenoir. By the time a very different take on ‘Unchained Melody’ plays out, Things to Come has soared into the sublime.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
A version of this review first ran during MIFF 2016.