Director Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest offering, L’avenir (2016) aka Things to Come, essentially revolves around Rousseau’s maxim, “If happiness fails to come, hope persists.” Rousseau — and philosophy in general — plays a big part in the film, as it follows philosophy professor Nathalie (a truly sublime Isabelle Huppert, though she is always sublime), who experiences a number of mundane personal tragedies, seemingly all in quick succession. Her husband Heinz (André Marcon), also a philosophy professor, announces that he is leaving her for his girlfriend; her neurotic mother (the luminescent Edith Scob) has to be hospitalized and dies; the book collection that she writes and edits is cancelled by her publisher; and a trip to visit her favorite student, Fabian (Roman Kolinka), on his remote farm turns out to be a disappointment. Ultimately, the film presents a journey of self-discovery for Nathalie, one that forces her to ask many questions about what she wants out of life — and how to face its disappointments — while boldly and bravely refusing to provide any answers.
Despite the fact that — at least on the surface level — the film seems to be a melodrama about middle-aged life, Hansen-Løve brilliantly sidesteps sentimental cliche at every turn, though she doesn’t reject them outright: she confronts them directly, implying that any number of events could become possible in Nathalie’s life. Will she have an affair with her student? Will her husband come back to her? Will she go mad like her mother has and die alone? Within the film, there is the hint that each of these scenarios could become a reality and in this way, Hansen-Løve sustains some of the film’s tensions not by dramatic plot developments, but through a seductive, yet understated sort of teasing, a way of playing with cinematic conventions themselves. In a recent interview, she said, “For me, making films is about questions, not about the answers.” L’avenir will not please everyone — as it is meandering and restrained, providing few moments of expected drama — but its real brilliance lies in the fact that it attempts what I would describe as unflinching, unsentimental realism.
Through Nathalie’s character, L’avenir specifically raises questions of intellectual versus emotional fulfillment and queries whether or not just one of these is enough to lead a satisfying life. While Hansen-Løve’s earlier films, such as Un amour de jeunesse (Goodbye First Love, 2011) and Eden (2014) typically deal with younger characters and their relationships, something about L’avenir suggests that age doesn’t matter; while Huppert is undeniably perfect for the role — and imbues it with her effective brand of comedy — it is more about the journey of self-exploration and less about the fact that the character undergoing that journey is a woman in her fifties. There are perhaps some autobiographical elements; the director’s parents were both philosophy professors (and that her mother went through a divorce later in life and dealt with it in her own stoic way) and when she introduced the film at the New York Film Festival earlier this year, she mentioned that her mother had a hand in the script.
This is largely a film about freedom and, in some ways, it’s a film about finding freedom by giving up control, abandoning rules, and setting aside expectations. Through this, the every day is transformed into the transformative, even the sublime, and even Nathalie’s most mundane moments betray a range of often unexpected — though always restrained — emotions. In some ways, there are strange parallels with Verhoeven’s latest, Elle (2016), which also stars Huppert. Though the two films are dramatically different in style and tone, and Elle is essentially a nihilistic drama with blackly comedic undertones about a woman’s search for her rapist, there are odd similarities. Huppert’s characters in both films undergo a sort of search for personal freedom, one which is fundamentally separate from the other characters in the films; both women are isolated, even lonely, and seem to have difficulty making robust emotional connections. In both an uneven-tempered cat provides much comic and emotional relief, while wry humor is also a surprise element, perhaps thanks to Huppert’s weight as protagonist and her typically restraint — yet also often over the top — approach to performance.
And both films confront the notion that for a women to truly be free, she must separate herself from lovers, friends, and children. Hansen-Løve said, “I am telling a story about a character who is free, in all ways in which she can be free. It’s really about freedom, about a woman who loses everything, and at the point when she’s lost everything, she finds herself.” To the film’s credit, she does not “find herself” through the same inane distractions that pollute numerous recent women’s films, particularly those from Hollywood: exoticized spiritualism, food, culture, sex, friendships, or new romantic relationships. Tellingly, Nathalie has none of these things, or when she does, they are either not of central importance or they’re in some way fundamentally disappointing. This fundamental sense of disappointment serves as a sort of core to the film, one which always draws attention back to Nathalie’s profound loneliness.
Fascinatingly, this is not a film about a woman seeking out intimate connections and failing; rather Hansen-Løve repeatedly explores the fact that the relationships Nathalie does have — with business colleagues, her students, her children, her husband, and her mother — are in some way not critical to (or directly oppose) her personal happiness. A line from Pascal’s Pensées, one that features in the film, sums up much of Nathalie’s attitude towards herself: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” While on one hand, she is a great thinker and obviously derives intense pleasure from reading and philosophical contemplation, the film goes to show that she doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking about her own life, what she wants, or what she needs. She spends much of her time on the go, in action, which ultimately provides an interesting backdrop to her loneliness and makes it seem somehow more glaring.
This gloomy tone is introduced immediately in the opening scene which features a family visit to the imposing grave of writer Chateaubriand — the founder of French Romanticism — where Nathalie, her husband, and her two children gather under a foreboding sky on the Breton coast. This scene is somewhat deceptive, as it seems to portend a tragedy that never strikes. Though Nathalie does undergo a series of personal difficulties, she takes them all in stride. She has days of sorrow and days of joy, but on the whole, the film moves from a place of pessimism to one of reserved, even cautious optimism. It seems that Nathalie has taken her publisher’s warning that “the future is compromised” to heart without letting it defeat her; for example, she laughs when, from a public bus, she sees her husband and his girlfriend walking together on the street.
But her refuge is largely her love of philosophy, an element wonderfully reflected in the film, which is peppered with references to Rousseau, Pascal, Adorno, and Levinas, among many more. Hansen-Løve said that her career is made up of “films about vocation” and Nathalie’s is given tremendous life here. For example, one of the main scenes of divorce-related discord involves dividing up the book collection (a horrific moment for me personally), though overall the film doesn’t descend into intellectual masturbation (not that I would have minded if it had) but strikes a balance between engaging Nathalie’s robust intellectual life and her more complicated emotional one. Hansen-Løve also deals quite elegantly with Nathalie’s politics and, in a way, this feels like an elegy to the European intellectuals who had to deal with the failure of the 1968 protests. Figures of idealism remain — another early scene involves Nathalie defiantly fighting her way through protesters to reach her classroom — but Nathalie realizes that she no longer has anything in common with them, particularly when a search for truth and ideas is abandoned in favor of dogmatism.
On paper, L’avenir is a much more difficult — and cold — film than it is in practice. Thanks to Huppert’s stunning performance, it’s easy to become quickly attached to Nathalie and to eagerly follow her struggles as if they are our own, as the film refreshingly elects not to judge any of her behavior, whether that involves cozying up with a copy of Levinas or attempting to find something at an anarchists’ farm in the mountains. Hansen-Løve summarizes the overall tone best herself: “Most of the time, there is no happy end to my films, no real solution in terms of scriptwriting, nothing can happen that would fix things. People that are dead, are still dead, people that are gone, are still gone… But there is something that happens inside of her, something that has to do with the relationship you have with yourself, an inner peace. It has to do with experience, with the way you look at life. And at some point, you feel that the character has found herself.” This moment is, perhaps obviously at this point, understated, but still manages to feel like a surprise; at least, the surprise that Nathalie herself seems to feel is palpable and difficult to forget long after the credits fade.
L’avenir is one of the most unexpected delights of the year and is an astoundingly beautiful film (thanks in part to cinematographer from Denis Lenoir, who has also worked with Hansen-Løve’s partner, Olivier Assayas). This film goes to show that you can make art about middle age, about the lives of women, and about everyday tragedies like loss, divorce, disappointment, and even failure without resorting to the kind of sentimental drivel that reduces its characters — and its audience — to the lowest common denominator. It shows that it is also possible to make a film densely packed with cultural and intellectual references (which are admittedly my favorite kind) without resorting to elitism or snobbery; if Nathalie is anything, she is intensely relatable even in her seeming emotional remoteness and persistent stoicism. And if L’avenir leaves behind an overall message, it’s that Huppert is like oxygen and we need her in these difficult times more than ever. Things to Come will have a limited theatrical release beginning this week courtesy of IFC Films.