“I thought you would love me forever,” says Nathalie to her husband of thirty years, after he suddenly declares that he’s leaving her for a younger woman. It’s likely not the response you’re expecting to hear uttered from Isabelle Huppert, the formidable actress best known for her defiant, icy portrayals in such relentlessly unsentimental films as The Piano Teacher and this year’s Paul Verhoeven come-back Elle. And while she delivers the disappointment matter-of-factly, as if sadly recalling a forgotten item on a grocery list, it’s the innocence of the sentiment that catches us off guard. Why wouldn’t she expect to be loved forever? In Things to Come, the latest drama by writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, Huppert plays Nathalie, a sophisticated 60-year-old philosophy professor whose placid Parisian existence is upended first by her husband’s affair and then by the sudden decline of her unstable mother.
After 2014’s dance music epic Eden, which was partially based on the experiences of her DJ brother, Hansen-Løve has returned with another personal project, this time drawing from a rocky episode in her own mother’s life. Things to Come exudes a quiet confidence, balancing melancholy with hope, looseness and precision. As with her 2009 family saga The Father of My Children, Hansen-Løve gives us the in-between spaces of life: the daily pressures and potentials that shape our personal dramas. It’s all anchored by Huppert’s nuanced performance. Like Sonja Braga’s retired music critic in this fall’s Aquarius, Huppert’s Nathalie is an anomaly in cinema: leave it to filmmakers outside the US to give mature actresses such layered, meaty roles. For Huppert, who imbues the bookish and prickly Nathalie with wry humor and great tenderness, it’s an opportunity to play against our expectations.
Brooklyn Magazine: Eden was about the excitement and confusion of being young and the world being full of potential. Things to Come, by contrast, is a focused character study of middle age, a time in life when things have settled into routine and our expectations have narrowed. And yet, as you show us, the two periods in life might not be so different after all.
Mia Hansen-Løve: I wrote Things to Come during the period when we were trying to get Eden financed. This makes a difference in terms of the mood I was in at the time. There were months when I was waiting around, stressed out. At some point, I had all these different versions of the Eden script in front of me, and I just wanted to escape. I started taking notes in the margins about a portrait of an older woman whose husband leaves her and has to face a number of difficulties at an age when it’s difficult to start again. I had my mother in mind. In a short period of time, she faced many of the things Isabelle’s character faces in Things to Come. I was asking myself how she could still have faith in her own future. The film’s title came very early on. It’s one thing to face big changes in your 20s or 30s, but later in life it can be harder to believe in a future. I’m not a feminist in an ideological sense, but this question also has a lot to do with being a woman. At the time, I couldn’t immediately think of another film that dealt with this subject in the way I imagined it. The subject scared me. It was so dark, and I needed to be able to find light in the story. I don’t mean a happy ending, but a sense of hope.
Casting Isabelle Huppert works in this respect as well. She captures this subtle oscillation between the two sides of Nathalie—the confident intellectual in control, and this daydreamer who’s just trying to cope with instability.
What I find very moving is that Nathalie is both quiet and stoic in her way of accepting her husband’s affair. But there is also a huge innocence. She’s genuinely surprised, more than sad, when her husband reveals the affair. For her, it’s so unexpected. I saw this with my mother as well. I would not have made the film without Isabelle. It would have been too depressing to me, otherwise. It’s not that I was confident Isabelle would take the role, but I wrote it specifically for her. I rarely ever write for actors. But thinking about Isabelle’s energy, humor, precision, and ferocity, gave me the desire and courage to write it. Even before I made films, I considered Isabelle my “film mother.” Her way of being, this ferocity in particular, reminds me of my own mother. I also played Isabelle’s daughter years ago in Sentimental Destinies (2000). It was a small part, but this memory was very strong. When we offered her the part of Nathalie, she immediately embraced it and understood all the nuances in the script. The one thing that surprised her, and that helped both of us, was this idea of revealing tenderness in Nathalie. It’s not something you see in the roles Isabelle’s done for Michael Haneke and Paul Verhoeven. She realized this was an opportunity to play a type of character that she hasn’t played recently.
I watched Elle and Things to Come a few days apart. It’s curious detail that in each film, Isabelle’s character has a conflicted relationship with a black cat. In Elle, the cat is the only witness to her brutal attack. In your film, she inherits this unwieldy cat after her mother dies. She doesn’t want it and there are some comic moments between them. Over the course of the film, however, we realize that her relationship to the cat has a larger significance.
I tend to think that when there’s a cat in a film, it really becomes the hero at some point. I think Elle and Things to Come are like mirrors in a way. They actually deal with similar themes, but in radially different ways. You could say, one is the answer of a man and one is the answer of a woman. For me, the cat sums up the difference between the films. Verhoeven used a professional cat, which means there’s a handler on set. We used a cat belonging to my friend that had never been in films before. This expresses something about the different spirit of each film. For me, the cat is very important to the story in my film, and its meaning changed over the course of making the film. When I wrote the script, the cat was a detail I barely thought about. During the shoot, the cat came to signify the ghost of Nathalie’s mother. Later, it seemed to represent Nathalie’s subconscious, her repressed sexual desire. After her husband leaves, she says repeatedly that she doesn’t need or want another man. It’s not even something she’s willing to discuss. Of course, it’s not true at all. She’s clearly enamored with Fabien [her protégé, played by Roman Kolinka]. I like characters like Nathalie who are ambivalent and contradictory. For her, the cat is what you can’t get rid of in life. It’s what she doesn’t want to face. As an actor, Isabelle is so self-conscious and precise. She’s not someone who loses control. In a way, the cat was about losing control. The presence of this huge, untrained cat was a way to introduce a kind of messiness into the process that would bring some life to the film.
There’s a political theme running through Things to Come. When we first meet Nathalie, she is defiantly holding class despite the students protesting outside. Nathalie is a former communist, but has left behind certain ideas. Fabien, her star former student who lives on a commune, sees himself as part of a new radical left and views her bourgeois life with a degree of disdain. In their political disagreements, you seem to be addressing a larger generational divide.
When I was growing up, a lot of my mother’s former students would stop by our house to talk. She had a very warm relationship with them. There was one student in particular who inspired Fabien’s character. He was more radical leftist than my mother. In the 70s, my mother had been radical, but like many intellectuals, she had turned her back on Communist ideals and certain leftist ideas connected with Stalinism. In the film, I wanted to show this oscillation between these two viewpoints. Today, there seems to be an irreconcilable gap between the two sides of left. It’s not that I’m endorsing either side. Youth needs to have faith in the possibility to change the world.
When I saw your debut All is Forgiven (2007), I remember being struck by the way you built scenes around fragments, and how those fragments collect, and give us a portrait of the mysterious way time passes and is experienced in memory. Things to Come is your fifth film, and it also has that same effect.
I really try to stay true to what I observe in life, even if it’s not what we typically see in films. I’m very keen to differentiate between scenes and dialogue influenced by certain ideas of cinema, and scenes and dialogue that come from my own experience. Sometimes, they are connected and sometimes not. I’m trying to transmit a feeling of life, rather than a feeling of cinema. I’m trying be brave and to follow that thread and not let it go. Whenever I write a new film, I am always thinking about how it relates the previous ones. To me, it’s like building up a house or a family. I’m very excited when I think of films, not as individual islands but as part of a family. When you think of the films of Rohmer, this is the case. Each film can be appreciated on its own and also as part of a related group. Together, the films end up being like a big painting. It’s like when you step back from an Impressionist painting, and you see all the different points come together to form a style and a relationship to life. It’s something I’m trying to do with my films.