L’Avenir (or Things to Come) stars Isabelle Huppert as parisienne Nathalie, a philosophy teacher whose life changes suddenly when her husband (André Marcon) announces he’s met someone else. By focusing on the quotidian aspects of Nathalie’s life —the small moments of defeat and heartbreak we don’t often see when we consider the lives of those around us— Director Mia Hansen-Løve manages to paint a vivid portrait of a woman forced to confront a changing reality she hasn’t exactly been prepared for.
Instead of the kind of eat-pray-become-one-with-the-universe trajectory so often held up as the only proper way to deal with life’s challenges, the audience is treated to a much more subtle, intimate look at the inner life of a modern woman who’s probably read enough Marcuse to know a holiday somewhere warm and an expensive new dress or two won’t fix much in the long run.
Books, ideas, and philosophy are more than mere backdrop here. Nathalie is not placed in a house full of intimidating volumes of intellectual musing simply to signal her character’s preoccupation with the examined life; in fact, she seems more upset that her husband has taken with him some of her prized treatises than she does about his infidelity. The film, book-ended (pun entirely unavoidable) by Rousseauian questions regarding human nature, draws a very detailed map of the road its protagonist is on. (Whether or not she has any idea where she’s headed is another question, of course. One is left with the impression that what Nathalie values above all things is a quiet life, ‘disturbed by no more than the sounds of the ocean and the wind’ — a wish expressed on a plaque Nathalie reads at the start of the film near the grave of Chateaubriand.)
Huppert’s Nathalie is well-read, compelling in conversation, and very, very French. Here is a woman not accustomed to letting mere inconveniences (like an ugly students’ strike or a rapidly crumbling marriage) break her stride. Her maturity is only occasionally interrupted by a more youthful insecurity —a disruption the viewer is almost shocked to witness. These little moments of hurt and self-doubt are where Huppert truly draws the audience in, as she seems to convey a world of meaning —the sum of a whole life lived— through the smallest shadow of a grimace.
The film asks more questions than it answers, with perhaps the biggest conundrum emerging as that of the ‘free’ woman. Nathalie — newly husbandless, unfettered by any dependents — is free for the first time in her life, and seems entirely unsure about what this means. Is freedom a woman sitting alone in a field, reading, with the wind in her hair? Is it a woman crying in bed as she clutches the cat that’s become her only companion? Perhaps the truth lies hidden somewhere in one of Rousseau’s ideas Nathalie discusses with her students: ‘We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy’. L’Avenir does seem to encourage the audience to find their happiness in the anticipation of things to come.
Things to Come will be screened as part of the European Film Festival 2017, coordinated by the Goethe-Institut South Africa, at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on 5 and 14 May. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.