When men hit midlife, they buy a red convertible, maybe a toupee and a gym membership – and often trade in the used wife for a new cookie. In contrast, the wives they cast off cry on public transportation. They contemplate and reject plastic surgery. When the public weeping stops, they may rejoice that that’s a legion of dirty socks they won’t have to bend over and pick up from the floor in the future. Ultimately, there’s a sense of liberation.
In L’avenir (Things to Come), Mia Hansen-Love’s realistic French-language drama making its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, the Eden director follows the rhythms of Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a married Parisian high school philosophy professor and mother of two grown children. She should be enjoying the fruits of her labor, but then discovers that even when you have your own act very much together your life can still fall apart.
Huppert as Nathalie is about as much of a perfect woman—a feminist role model—as can be seen on screen. She is slim, and in that Parisian way, effortlessly chic. She passionately teaches philosophy—she’s big on Rousseau and the social contract—cooks game hen, arranges flowers, reads voraciously, tersely tends to her increasingly demented and childish mother, and enjoys the company of two children raised with love. As played by Huppert with confidence, control and minimal fuss, Nathalie is capable and brisk, enjoying life within the lines she has drawn over the past two plus decades.
And then Nathalie’s husband Heinz (Andre Marcon) announces he wants to leave, Nathalie’s publisher wants to sex up the covers of the philosophy texts she’s been writing for years, and her children become increasingly self-sufficient. It seems that the social contract she made with the world – that she would work hard and with integrity and be rewarded – has been broken. The movie echoes the 1978 Paul Mazursky film An Unmarried Woman with Jill Clayburgh, although infinitely more dry-eyed. Nathalie faces her future philosophically, navigating the unexpected upset as she would the countless crises of child-rearing or marriage – overcome the trauma, patch the problem and keep moving forward until it hurts just a little less, and then a little less. One day, the sun comes out and you can again feel its warmth on your cheeks, and get traction under your relatively sensible shoes (she is Parisian after all).
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Writer-director Hansen-Love creates a lovely, mostly sharp character portrait of a capable woman facing a crisis in midlife with integrity. If Nathalie lacks the messiness and warmth of Clayburgh’s suddenly unmarried woman, that’s alright. Not everyone wears their life on their sleeve and the restraint here of Nathalie, and Hansen-Love, is admirable. The drama meanders in the third act, as Nathalie visits a protégé living on an anarchist farm and gets her puff of weed. But what makes it work is that, unlike Heinz, she doesn’t escape her rising sense of mortality by getting lost in the rumpled sheets with a man half her age. Sure, she looks over that cliff, and flirts with a neo-hippie commune – even hugging a donkey at one point – but the movie’s virtue is that, in the end, Nathalie returns to a life that she controls, crisply and philosophically. And, like Huppert herself, never makes one false move.