Isabelle Huppert’s Unmarried Woman
Things To Come and the predictable devastation of middle-aged endings
On the mezzanine level of the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, next to the elevators and across one of the building’s shafts of white light, I stumble into Isabelle Huppert who wastes no time in giving me the once-over. Screening on a pair of LCD monitors is video artist Gary Hill’s Loop Through, a piece which shows Huppert shifting her gaze between two cameras, producing the discomforting, equally bewitching sensation of being watched by the 63-year-old French actress. When she lays her eyes on me, an arctic cool settles and my first and last instinct is to look away. Or conversely, to pull up a chair and attempt the impossible: a staring contest with Isabelle Huppert. Her steadiness unsteadies. She seems to know the answer to what I haven’t yet considered asking. This is her power.
Huppert’s performance in Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature, Things to Come (now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox) perfectly agrees with the actresses’ capacity for performing controlled heartbrokenness. It’s one of three films that she stars in at TIFF 16, including a controversial turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and a lead in the quietly devastating romantic drama Souvenir. Here, she plays a philosophy teacher named Nathalie Chazeux who must reestablish her life and reconcile with the emotional cargo of suddenly being unburdened by what she never considered true burdens — her husband, her two kids, her mother, the lingering expectation to remain relevant in academia. Hers is a world where on vacation, the kids run ahead as the parents volley abstract ideas back-and-forth as they stroll. Her apartment shows no traces of having ever housed kids — perhaps they were raised elsewhere? — and is decorated instead with books and more books, little piles here and there of papers and postcards, some art. The walls, the couch are all muted. Colour comes in the shape of fresh strawberries, scooped into small bowls at lunch.
One understands quickly that Nathalie’s family, like it or not, were expected to embrace academia at home. Her son and daughter are very much aware of her students, her favourites, their names. An extended family she would praise and lend books to, and bring up during dinner as if these students were, quite naturally, her children too. Despite this mostly conversational commingling of her worlds, the moment her marriage ends, it becomes clear her professional life too, experiences its own version of — what I wouldn’t call a blow, exactly — but a taking account of.
In this way, there is no actress better suited for capturing the tedium and everyday nuisance of endings. Together with Hansen-Løve, Huppert perfectly captures this fact of life with insight and compassion, delicately conjuring images of loneliness and its many, unexpected forms. Like Nathalie’s recently discovered reserve of tenderness for her mother’s otherwise pain-in-the-ass cat, Pandora. Or, how disorienting it can be to wake up having dozed off on a stretch of grass in the park. A breeze has picked up and all of Nathalie’s papers are blowing away from her.
Hansen-Løve’s penchant for depicting big dramatic events in one’s life, like reconnecting with an estranged father in All is Forgiven or surviving a parent’s death in The Father of My Children, or surviving the misery of first love in Goodbye First Love, without ever using the ploy of big dramatic tricks, complements Huppert’s knack for emotional pragmatism. When Nathalie’s 25-year marriage dissolves, she is shocked and certainly devastated, but she does not rage. “I thought you’d love me forever,” she tells her husband, revealing that girl-like quality Huppert has preserved. Just as quick, she adds, “I’m a goddamn idiot!” before walking out of the room and reinstating the actress's charming severity.
The film offers up another intrigue — the amity and tension between Nathalie and her former student and protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). That said, their tension is treated differently than how one might expect. Kolinka and Huppert perform this cliché (the professor/student romance) with such restraint that it solicits our imaginations, suggesting risk, despite the film’s contemplative tone. Surely their connection involves more than just philosophical debate? Or, is the romantic connection we are sensing simply Oedipal? While love and how it wanes occupies part of the film’s centre, attraction and how it manifests itself does not appear to motivate the film’s characters. One gets the sense Nathalie cannot see beyond looking back. She has built a world full of daily to-do’s and responsibilities. And that her passion of the big, fugitive kind was stored away long ago.
In one scene, while weekending at her soon-to-be ex-husband’s cottage on the Ile du Grand Bé off the coast of Brittany, Nathalie walks barefoot on the rocky beach, struggling to get service on her cellphone. She’s calling the extended care home where she’s recently moved her ailing mother into, hoping to get an update on how she’s doing. Watching Huppert balance barefoot on the painful rocks and muddy clay, all the while growing more and more hostile with her phone’s failing signal, is compelling. I found myself wishing there was a whole movie of Huppert trudging through an inclement beach, simply searching for a signal. Later, she joins her mother at the home. They eat chocolates and watch the news, and joke about Sarkozy. All that’s left at the end of a long day is love and a sleeping mother, her very tired daughter, and chocolate wrappers strewn on a blanket.
Hansen-Løve’s appreciation for a person’s things — another recurring theme in her body of work — and how possessions become extensions of the heart, is once again captured by how Nathalie devotedly cares for her flowers and collects her books. In a manner, maintaining a garden and accumulating one’s library, documents life’s various stages. Or as Sontag once noted, characterizing the virtue of her own library: “an archive of longings.” Eventually, Nathalie’s wall-lined bookshelves thin following her separation from her husband, but still, her books and, for example, the bouquet from her students that she places in a favorite vase, all represent the comforts her interior life have afforded her. Hansen-Løve is a master of showing a character’s physical space and architecture: which doors people use to enter which rooms, the bowl where keys are tossed, the choreography required from a couple in order to clear the table and wash the dishes, and how they pick a fight while chucking leftovers into the trash. We witness the unremarkable scenes of a marriage. The done-by-habit parts.
But while Nathalie readjusts to her separation, she confesses to Fabien: “Deep down, I was prepared.” Despite her cavalier affect — don’t expect to catch this unmarried woman dancing alone in her apartment in her underwear to Swan Lake — it’s her memories that she will miss most. The way she sees it, they’ve been wiped clean. They’re departed like her mother, her grown kids, her husband, the philosophy anthologies she edited that no longer seem relevant. Hansen-Løve has created a movie about a woman building a past so secured by its monotony that Nathalie didn’t, for instance, ever plan on retiring. The future she envisioned was just more of the same until, of course, she’s forced to snap out of it. I wonder if purpose is what turns Nathalie on. Finding it now will require some meandering — weekends in the country, going to the movies alone, grandmotherhood.
Things to Come’s title proposes that change is on the horizon. Perhaps, Hansen-Løve is, as the film’s French title (L’Avenir) suggests, moving into new artistic territory that favours the hope of the future and its unknown textures. There’s a new feeling-around, both in tone and performance, that comes with having to let go of melancholy. In one scene, Nathalie’s tears turn to laughter, as if Hansen-Løve’s been corrupted by an unaccustomed levity. I found it jarring, having rarely seen that type of emotional switch occur in her work. It’s now grown on me. The director’s subtle migration into weighty narratives that tolerate brief spells of weightlessness, is, plainly put, very exciting. Unraveling, as Hansen-Løve and Huppert beautifully show us, is one way of deciphering what lies ahead.