Mia Hansen-Løve’s films have always demonstrated a maturity of insight beyond her years, which she’s applied to her observations on people her own age or younger. Now 35, with her fifth feature “L’Avenir” (“Things To Come”) she’s looking ahead of herself for the first time, and to the experience of a middle-aged woman suddenly forced to reappraise her life.
Also for the first time, the director has at her disposal an actress of considerable experience and talent, Isabelle Huppert. This pair are perfectly matched, with both director and actress favoring a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact approach to their work, usually with scant recourse to cliché or histrionics. And the result is a superb portrait of a woman whose response to what many would regard as a crisis is not just refreshing, but rather inspiring.
Huppert is Nathalie, a philosophy teacher with a husband of 25 years, two children, a sickly and demanding mother (Edith Scob) who she dotes on without complaint, and a job she loves. Devoted to all of it, she’s nevertheless a little like the DJ of Hansen-Løve’s last film, ‘Eden’, so wedded to work – in Nathalie’s case, to books, ideas, and her students – that she takes her eye off the bigger picture.
So when the amiable Heinz (André Marcon), who’s also a teacher, announces that he’s met another woman, the news is a shock and his departure out of the blue.
Other developments, personal and professional, combine to throw the settled life that Nathalie thought she had out of the window. To a degree, she must start anew, at an age when finding a new partner is hardly assured. When a former student and now friend insists there’s hope in the fact that older women often leave their husbands for younger men, Nathalie’s retort is, quite rightly, “only in films.”
Her response to her situation is, let’s say, “philosophical.” It’s also in keeping with a woman who is physically and mentally spry, and indomitable – though never without feelings, the complete portrayal making Nathalie one of Huppert’s most rounded, recognizable and engaging characters.
As for the writing and direction, Hansen-Løve is never one for breakdowns or meltdowns, melodramatic show-downs or pat happy endings; and she’s not going to start here. In fact, the film is often very funny, whether it’s a running joke involving an unwanted cat, or the terrific vignette in a cinema, with Nathalie batting away the amorous attentions of a stranger while trying to watch Kiarostami’s romantic puzzle “Certified Copy,” with Huppert’s great contemporary, Binoche staring down from the screen.
What Hansen-Løve also achieves (and arguably something only the French can really pull off) is to present a world whose characters are wholly engaged with books and ideas, without seeming self-conscious or embarrassed. Books are everywhere to be seen: what people find on someone else’s shelves or missing from their own matters.
And in keeping with the film as a whole, this erudition offers both insight and a little mirth. And so when a friend presents her newborn grandchild with an introduction to Plato, Nathalie will of course say, “It’s never too early for philosophy.”