Berlinale Review: L’Avenir (Mia Hansen-Løve)

L’Avenir (Things to Come) has a scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers film; it is, however, absent their trademark coal-black humor or attributed misanthropy and condescension towards their characters. In director Mia Hansen-Løve’s opus, Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a philosophy professor (also married to one) who in a space of a few months and two movie-hours suffers a series of debilitating setbacks, small and large, ranging from getting fired to the collapse of her marriage and eventual death of a family member, amongst other things.

None of these events come as shocks, laid out as they are, as a series of Jobian tests that Nathalie will endure in a trial of her dearly held philosophical principles. As an ode to characters philosophically and politically motivated by ideas, the film could be said to be a spiritual sequel to Hansen-Løve’s partner Olivier Assayas’ underrated masterwork Something in the Air (2012), only this is the ’30 years later’ version – the reckoning, French style!

Already at the end of the Assayas film, we see how characters, with a mix of defeated conviction and oncoming maturity, start cooling in their radical fervor, and start taking a more equanimous view of life, that contains more moderate, even conservative ideas like stability and further along, employment, income and domestic life. In Hansen-Løve’s film, Nathalie, incomparably enlightened though she is, suffers through the same banal travails that afflict lesser mortals, only with more stoicism. Though life catches at her unawares, finding her, at various moments, weeping into her pillow or talking to herself – philosophy brings intellectual self-satisfaction and perhaps intellectual self-congratulation, but doesn’t seem to ease life’s more human demands.

The film though, on the brink of being a Sundance-style indie (think Precious-level of catastrophes befalling a character) carefully skids left and right in unexpected bursts of situational humor which leaven what could otherwise have been a dour tale of a middle-aged woman come undone. Huppert displays great comic timing on many occasions (though it should come as a surprise to nobody; what is this woman not capable of), notably in a scene where she makes her ex-husband leave her house on Christmas Eve even after he repeatedly confesses to being all alone for the holidays.

While Nathalie’s interactions with her husband and hypochondriac mother (Edith Scob, in a thankless role) find occasions for prickly humor, the most fascinating interaction is her atypical relationship with ex-student Fabien (Roman Kolinka). There is an understated sexual tension between the two that Hansen-Løve wisely never fans (avoiding the ultimate independent film cliché – middle-aged woman hooks up with hot young paramour and finds liberation). It remains deeply buried between the two, expressed sometimes in revealing cutaways and continued philosophical exchanges and sparring.

This is a film which can be easily mistaken as ‘intellectual’ or a ‘film of ideas’ just because the primary characters are philosophers. But that would be akin to calling a film about poets ‘poetic’, just because. There isn’t anything intellectually daring about the film, presenting as it does a not-unusual series of circumstances for a middle-aged woman film character and especially a not-unusual exploration of them.

What seems most at odds with other films of this ilk is the almost complete absence of anything approaching the ‘cinematic eye’, so to say. The images and mise en scène are strictly functional and unadorned, the film primarily relying on its script and Isabelle Huppert’s excellent star turn to generate interest. Seeing a movie like this, completely shorn of evocative shots, one wonders how often one mistakes striking images for profundity, and their absence somehow makes you yearn for them and despise them at the same time.