THE FUTURE: Huppert in L’Avenir
September 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s hard to believe that Isabelle Huppert is 63. I remember The Lace Maker, the first film I saw her in (it must have been 1978), where she plays Pomme, a young working-class woman, shy and apparently passive, who falls for a middle-class intellectual and is casually discarded by him. It launched a film career that has made her the most impressive actress on screen today. The Huppert of L’Avenir (Things to Come) is at her peak, compelling in a role of great complexity, where it isn’t her looks (though she’s surely now more beautiful than the baby-faced Pomme) that belie her age so much as the intelligence and spirit with which she endows the character. In happy conjunction, this wonderfully resonant film, in part about ageing and the griefs that accompany it, has a writer-director, Mia Hansen-Løve, of extraordinary maturity, who is only 35 and has already made her mark with the fine Father of My Children (2009).
L’Avenir begins with the past and a family visit in winter to the grave of Chateaubriand at Saint-Malo: parents arm in arm and two small children. The present is during the Sarkozy presidency, with protests against his policies in full swing. Nathalie teaches philosophy in a lycée, (we glimpse the facade of the prestigious Henri IV, whose former pupils include illustrious thinkers and writers) displaying a rigorous commitment to both subject and students that is reflected in her daily life. Married for 25 years, her children now grown, she has a narcissistic mother whose decline and depression produce constant demands and unfailing rescues on Nathalie’s part (in scenes not without humour). Her warmth sits behind the briskly assertive manner of a woman who knows and speaks her own mind.
Unwelcome change arrives first on a visit to the publisher of the textbook she’s long had in print and the series she edits. To her cost, she refuses dismaying revamp proposals. Then Heinz, her husband, announces he’s leaving her for another woman. ‘I thought you’d love me forever. What a fool I was,’ she tells him. ‘I will always love you,’ he mumbles, nonetheless merciless in his subsequent stripping of Nathalie’s treasures from the bookshelves. Her mother’s death soon follows. These are the losses, great and small and not so uncommon, that seem to dismantle a life, especially if they come in quick succession.
Stoicism, of course, has formed Nathalie by intellectual training and probably by temperament. When it cracks and the tears flow she is with Fabien, a former student of a decade before with whom she has a strong bond. ‘I’m free’ she howls in misery, ‘for the first time in my life’, knowing how curtailed women’s options are by her age. She was Fabien’s mentor, now he’s a brilliant scholar preparing a Ph.D. and already publishing studies on Foucault and Horkheimer. They are intellectual soulmates, mildly flirtatious even before Heinz left Nathalie. At this point, a conventional script would develop into a superior romcom, sparking a love affair defiant in the face of the 30-year age gap. But she isn’t looking for a lover, nor is he, which makes for something more interesting: an exploration of freedom, choices and principles, an engagement with both the closely examined life and the world it is a part of.
This is not merely a portrait of a brave woman, the film’s figure of moral authority, grieving for what she has lost. Through his sober commitment to a political activism he combines with earning a living Fabien too acquires authority, widening the perspective on what we have seen through Nathalie’s eyes. When he and his girlfriend move to live with friends in a political collective on the Vercors plateau, Nathalie is invited for a summer visit.
As a bastion of the wartime Resistance and a shelter for those fleeing the Nazis, the Vercors is strongly symbolic. It is here that Fabien decides to confront Nathalie with a philosophical challenge, questioning her line of demarcation between the ethics she lives by and their extension into the public sphere of politics. This returns us to an early sequence where, at the lycée, a picket line of demonstrating students blocks her way. She pushes through it and one of them asks whether she’d be happy to work until she’s 67 before she gets a pension. ‘I love my job’ she snaps, which is clearly not an answer to a question about solidarity.
Fabien’s question is likewise rebuffed.
Being young with adult powers of action and comprehension puts you at the start of things, ready to make change decisive. Like Fabien; like Nathalie’s children, whose role has been that of witnesses to marital breakdown; like her enthusiastic students, some of whom have plans that include her. They all, patently, are the future. The process of growing older makes time speed up, while we ourselves take longer to adapt to what it brings. We know that we belong more and more to the past. Yet, besides what we’ve passed on to the young, our future isn’t over, so long as we’re still alive to the present. Like Nathalie.
When her mother dies, she takes in the cat, the overweight Pandora, a creature she detests, pleading allergy. For all that, Pandora becomes a kind of transitional object, a source of comfort when Nathalie feels at her most bereft. Having known only the confines of a Paris flat, Pandora accompanies her to the streams and forests of the Vercors, where Nathalie comically attempts to keep her safe indoors. Too late; she leaves the cat to contemplate the view from the window. An exterior shot closes in on the darkness of the room and the eyes that glitter out of Pandora’s black fur, surveying an unimagined paradise in a flash of feline revelation. It’s one of the film’s many moments of grace. Cats can be allowed to have it all, wild nocturnal freedom and security by day. Unlike us.
Come winter Nathalie returns to leave Pandora in the Vercors with Fabien, from whom her parting seems final. We see his sadness as he drives away and it’s held in his eyes for a long time.
Although its sadnesses are palpable this is not a sad film. Its intimacies and emotional understandings, the agility of its ideas, give it a bracing richness. And the camera loves the world it shows us, the light and the darkness, the eloquent interiors and exhilarating landscapes, and the city, whose streets and parks are lived in with a tantalising fluidity that incites nostalgia – for a Paris experienced and one perhaps familiar through the films of Rivette and Rohmer, Varda and Godard.
A year later and Natalie is reading to her students from Rousseau on hope: ‘We can live without happiness, so long as we still desire it.’ When the Pandora of myth opened the fatal box releasing the world’s ills and miseries, hope was the one thing left in it.
L’Avenir looks at ageing and loss, but it’s essentially a film about how to live.