Midlife Awakening: Mia Hansen-Løve’s 'Things to Come' showcases Isabelle Huppert as a woman facing change
Mia Hansen-Løve is in the final stretch of her busy New York Film Festival schedule and she confesses to being tired. She sits in a booth at the restaurant of her hotel with her phone in hand, mere moments before she has to run crosstown to introduce the next screening of her latest film, Things to Come, starring the legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert. Hansen-Løve’s eyes seem to support her assertion at first. But as soon as she starts speaking, her sharp responses tell a different story altogether, even when she claims, “I'm running on empty.”
She talks the way she writes: There is an effortless breeziness to her prose. Her casual smarts evidently come easy to her, as she packs multitudes of meaning in each seemingly straightforward statement. Listening to her take a brainy journey from one idea to the next, I note how her in-person demeanor matches the on-the-page and behind-the-camera storyteller.
That Hansen-Løve is a dexterous thinker is not a surprise in the slightest. For one thing, the young French writer-director has been successfully wearing many hats as an artist and intellectual throughout her film career. She acted in two films by her now-husband Olivier Assayas: Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Then she wrote for the renowned highbrow film publication Cahiers du cinema as a contributor between 2003 and 2005. Two years after making her assured debut as a writer-director with All Is Forgiven, she won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with her 2009 title Father of My Children (which she shared with No One Knows About Persian Cats) and gained international acclaim as a notable, promising talent to watch. Since Father of My Children, which she wrote loosely based on the death of the prolific French film producer Humbert Balsan, her filmmaking journey has been nothing short of remarkable.
Hansen-Løve continued surveying the experiences of real-life characters she knows personally and, in some cases, closely. Fictionalizing the accounts of real events to varying degrees and following her characters digging their way out of practical or emotional obstacles, the filmmaker has been telling exceptionally well-constructed and crafted stories for almost a decade now. Her artistic signature is a cumulative hypnosis of sorts. As she follows her characters, all of whom are constantly on the move with one foot in front of the other, the impression her films leave is one of melancholic hope, injected into the human experience in profound ways.
“It's true that all of my films are about characters trying to survive, overcome something,” she confirms. “It's also about characters who lead from their passion, who are both very strong and somehow fragile, too. They are all about that balance between weakness and fragility, vulnerability and some strength.” Hansen-Løve, who does no rehearsals and captures many takes (which she enjoys a great deal), says some of her characters survive and manage to find a way out (like the family in Father of My Children), while some of them inevitably fall (like the very lead of the same film.)
Sundance Selects’ Things to Come, in that regard, is a survival story. Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) is a resourceful philosophy professor who manages to find a way out of her impasse, after her longtime husband admits to an affair and moves out of their home. She is hardly a victim in the scenario, however. While burdened and viscerally confused, she accepts the new chapter in her life with a matter-of-fact attitude, continues to focus on the intellectual nourishment she receives from her career, cares for her challenging, demanding mother, and forms a deep bond with her student Fabien (Roman Kolinka) with a palpable yet unrealized sexual tension.
For Things to Come, Huppert was always the first choice for the filmmaker. In fact, she wrote it with her in mind, her co-star (and onscreen mother) in the aforementioned Assayas picture Sentimental Destinies. “I was 19 years old, and she was my mother,” recalls Hansen-Løve. “Of course, that is a very strong memory, but I am also a huge admirer of her. She was just the only one person I could imagine as a credible philosophy teacher, with the wittiness, irony and energy she needed to have.”
Hansen-Løve’s tender, sensual 2011 follow-up to Father of My Children, titled Goodbye First Love, was reportedly semi-autobiographical. Her 2014 film Eden was an ode to her DJ brother Sven and homage to the “French Touch” generation. With Things to Come, she turns the lens to her family. “The film is inspired by the world I grew up in, because both of my parents have been philosophy teachers,” she explains. “The atmosphere I grew up in, the values of my parents and their world actually are present in [all] my films. But I had never really confronted it in this direct way. I felt I was ready to deal with that. I wasn't before.”
She continues with an anecdote of her personal experience with philosophy. In the fourth year of her studies in German literature, she had to write a philosophy master thesis in German. “That was the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life,” she says jokingly. “And I did it. The subject was empathy, which is what all of my films are about.”
Hansen-Løve says she writes out of necessity about the things that are most important to her in life. She doesn’t really approach projects from a “story” angle to decide whether they are worth telling or not. Instead, she considers the people involved in it. “Making films is more about remembering people than making a story known,” she elaborates. “I see my films like a gallery of portraits of people I don't want to forget, whether they're still alive or dead. Just like a painter who sometimes paints his wife or unknown people that he crossed on the street, because he finds their presence really cool and wants to capture their beauty. It's the same, except I'm not a painter. [I capture that] through fiction and through movement.”
With that movement comes Hansen-Løve’s unique handle on the passage of time, which she plays with in fluid and graceful ways. Her films luxuriously indulge in seemingly commonplace moments of life, documenting the transformation of the characters every step of the way. She does it understatedly, but the growing effect of her perceptiveness about those moments is conspicuous. The filmmaker says because she never went to film school and was never taught how to write a film, she had to trust herself in her “impressionist” way of writing. While she was surely influenced by certain methods, she says it’s been in a more chaotic and less academic way. “Impressionism is really the one thing that [speaks to me] the most in painting. It really relates to me, and I think it's at the very center of my films. When I write a story, [I decide] which moments I want to put under the light and which to keep in the shadow. They are not necessarily the most spectacular ones. They can be moments that seem very banal, but they have a special meaning. I don't even know why until I film them. At the end, it becomes a picture. I do [many] versions trying to make the rhythm better, but the first movement is very spontaneous. And I trust that. I'm crazy enough to trust that.”
Hansen-Løve views her films as “collections of moments without hierarchy.” One of those moments arrives in Things to Come when the audience realizes that the once-packed bookshelves of Nathalie’s apartment are now half-empty, after her ex-husband’s departure. It’s not an overstated moment, but it captures the viewer’s attention. “I think that scene was in my mind pretty much from the start,” she observes. “When I start writing a film, I write a few ideas of what's going to be in it. The half-empty bookshelves were there pretty early. It’s something I remember from my parents' separation, and I think when people, who give all of their life to books and ideas and teaching, separate, of course books are an important issue.”
As a testament to her unique play on moments and time, we then open a little window to Father of My Children—specifically the way her main initial protagonist—a busy, struggling film producer dealing with one complication after another—vacates the story midway through the running time. It’s a shock necessitated by the real-life story, but one that shifts the film’s focus and rhythm completely, especially in the way it deals with the cadence of time. On paper, it’s a risky move. But Hansen-Løve doesn’t quite see it that way. “When I decided to write a film about this producer’s suicide, I realized that there was this division for me, a before and an after. I had known him for a year. He was there, and it was a very strong and intense relationship with this producer. He was my first producer. Then he was gone and there was this void. If I wanted to make a film that really expressed my feelings, I needed to show the moment where he was there to build up all the memories, so that when he's not there anymore, the viewer can also share that feeling.”
As she promotes Things to Come, Hansen-Løve seems somewhat nonplussed about the questions she’s been getting in the States about why Nathalie and Fabien (her much younger student) don’t eventually become a couple. The filmmaker is surprised that those very same people are somehow puzzled by Nathalie’s matter-of-fact attitude and strength when she learns about her husband’s affair. She sees something a little off there, maybe ironically so, and blames the commonplace conventions we often see in film. She then laughs and says she could have brought them together, but it wouldn’t have been all that realistic. “That boy, he has a girlfriend he is in love with and she lives in the country. She's in love with him maybe, but not aware of it. I think he has feelings for her, but maybe he's not aware of it. And I do think there is erotic tension and it's something I'm aware of building up in the film. But people here are very surprised, if not shocked, that she suggests to her husband to lie in saying “Why did you tell it to me?” [when he confesses his affair]. But they're not shocked by the idea that she would have a lover 30 years younger than her.”
Reminded that Nathalie doesn’t have the exaggerated reaction to her husband’s affair that we would normally see in an American film, Hansen-Løve surmises that the hierarchy of values here might not be the same. “I think truth is important in life, but I also think that to preserve the other person is the higher value in terms of human relationships. Here, you have this ideology about truth that is very specific to America, or an Anglo-Saxon country. I do care a lot about truth, again, but maybe not in the same way.”
Hansen-Løve says she has always been aware there is consolation in art and in philosophy. She sees life as a quest for wisdom and truth, and not a quest for money. “I was lucky that my parents transmitted to me those kind of values.”