Isabelle Huppert is featured in two new films presently enjoying lengthy runs in Portland, Peter Verhoeven's Elle at Cinema 21, and Things to Come. Both have been on the list for some time because of Huppert, who gravitates toward roles and films of substance. I opted for Things to Come because Moonlight and Fences, two of my last three films, both quite good, left me looking for something a bit less intense and edgy that Elle appears to be. (Rogue One was a third cinematic adventure in December, seen with my niece and nephew in Tulsa over the holidays, a harmless bit of escapist fluff that made for an entertaining diversion but does not merit further comment.)
The plot in broad outline offers a fairly stereotypical scenario where things fall apart on a woman of a certain age with a settled life, a family, a career. The setting is contemporary, Paris. Nathalie (Huppert) is a philosophy teacher, an activist in her youth, a communist for three years, who must cross a picket line to teach her class as student demonstrators protest policies of the Sarkozy government. Her mother is given to depression, panic attacks, and phone calls at all hours of day and night demanding that Nathalie drop everything and take care of the issue of the moment. Her husband, Heinz, also a philosophy teacher, drops the bombshell that after twenty-five years of marriage he is seeing another woman, to which Nathalie responds in wonderfully French fashion, "You couldn't keep it to yourself?"
What kind of person is Nathalie? She is upset by her husband's infidelity, as would be expected, but not distraught, irritated but not given to outbursts of anger, testiness on display later when she comes home to find a vase of flowers presumably left on the table by Heinz as a gesture of some sort and when she surveys the empty spaces in the previously crammed bookcases after Heinz has come by for his books, exclaiming, "He took my Levinas!...with all my notes!...and my Buber!"
She can be brusque and short-tempered and does not suffer fools gladly. She teaches Rousseau and reads a passage from Pascal at her mother's funeral. Her role in the classroom as she sees it is to help her students learn to think for themselves. When her publisher's representatives inform her that they want to give her textbook a new design that makes it more modern, catchy, and aggressive, Nathalie harrumphs that the new design looks like an ad for M&M's. She tells Fabien, her former prize student, that life as she knows it is over. Women are washed up after forty. Fabien says what people tend to say in such circumstances, "You'll meet someone." Who? she scoffs. An old man? No way. The prospect of a young man is equally preposterous.
It is a commonplace in some circles that a life of engagement in affairs of the world is more authentic than the intellectual or academic, the bookish, life. Those disposed to the latter mode of existence are mere spectators observing "real" life, learning about it through books, and commenting on it in class, at happy hour, and in their own publications instead of living it. It is a trivial dichotomy, something a sophomore might go for, like libertarianism. Books Are Not Real Life but Then What Is?, the catchy title of a collection of essays by critic Marvin Mudrick (Oxford Univ Press, 1979), suggests a better way to consider the matter. By posing the question I identify myself as of the bookish delegation. Be that as it may, the distinction between the life of books, ideas, and reflection and the life of action may be facile, but the tension is real. Should I be in the library or at the barricades? The interplay between Nathalie and Fabien touches deftly on this tension. Nathalie encouraged him to pursue an academic career and helped him secure a contract with a publisher for the book he is writing about Max Horkheimer. Now Fabien has decided to give up tutoring and his dissertation, although he continues to work on the Horkheimer project. He is moving to a house in the mountains with a bunch of German anarchists who argue over dinner about whether it is bourgeois to put the individual author's name on an article published by the group. Fabien gently accuses Nathalie of keeping a clear conscience by going to demonstrations and signing petitions while not changing her lifestyle. "My bourgeois lifestyle," she notes.
Nathalie is by no means sanguine about the prospect of being alone. She simply will not be devastated by it. Acknowledging that much is lost in a turn to her life that she never anticipated, she tells Fabien she is fortunate because she is intellectually fulfilled. She has found freedom. At times there is a sense she is trying to convince herself. At others, well, she goes on, showing both an altogether human vulnerability and a stolid fortitude as she faces up to what she must, life being what it is.
It is a tribute to the film, director Mia Hansen-Løve and actors Huppert and Roman Kolinka, that these conversations between Nathalie and Fabien do not come off as didactic or contrived. Their exchanges are as natural as talk about any other subject of interest. Huppert and Kolinka show an easy rapport. Nathalie and Fabien are simpatico even when they take themselves most seriously, as intellectuals are prone to do. It is only natural to wonder if their relationship might evolve into sexual or romantic entanglement. Here as elsewhere Hansen-Løve deftly steers clear of cliché and convention with a realistic, and refreshing, depiction of friendship between a woman and a man. Another triumph is the protrayal of the protagonist, an attractive woman of a certain age (Huppert is sixty-three, but she is Huppert) simply as a woman of her age getting on with her life.
I did not recall Hansen-Løve until I watched a trailer for Goodbye First Love (2011) while prepping for this little review. Father of My Children (2009) also rings a faint bell in my memory. The recollections are faint. I may only have read about them or seen trailers. At any rate, Hansen-Løve is worth remembering, a still young director who will turn thirty-six tomorrow. Her work compares more than favorably with the two films I have seen by her better known husband Olivier Assayas, whose Something in the Air I quite liked, while Clouds of Sils Maria left me with mixed feelings even after seeing it a second time.
Huppert is as always first rate, as are Kolinka, André Marcon (Heinz), and Edith Scob (Nathalie's mother). As is Things to Come, more than a delight, a genuine pleasure.
Memo from the Editorial Desk
Yes, minor nonsubstantive edits were made to this piece after it was published. By way of example, while eating dinner Saturday evening I thought of a more felicitous phrase than one employed in two places and of a misused comma in another sentence. Maybe I should get a life.