In my notebook next to Isabelle Huppert I’ve written “formidable,” “ridiculous,” and “intelligent.” Few actresses emerge as fully grown as Huppert did to American audiences in 1980’s Heaven’s Gate. Playing writer-director Michael Cimino’s conception of a hooker with the heart of gold, she not only spoke perfect English but was attracted to Kris Kristofferson, the second plot crinkle an example of rare fortitude and sympathy. From Madame Bovary and La Ceremonie to The Piano Teacher and White Material, even when she rolled in the mud for the sake, dear god in heaven, of Jason Schwartzman, Huppert has played women of formidable intelligence whose masochism gets them in trouble with lovers and relatives. Looking at the forty-year span of her oeuvre, her consistency is impressive, if wearying. I’ve never known formidable women like Huppert who also weren’t ridiculous (men too). To be formidable is to be ridiculous, the way I look at it; formidable people don’t doubt their strength in public, which opens invitations to ridicule. Adrienne Rich once titled a collection of poems The Fact of a Doorframe. Isn’t that marvelous? Isabelle Huppert is as formidable – as factual – as a doorframe, a cinder block wall, a meat stew.
Things to Come, one of two huppertinismos to which American audiences are being treated this season, is the story of Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor whose life of mild intellectual stimulation changes after her husband Heinz (André Marcon) announces he has fallen in love with another woman. Her response? “I thought you’d love me forever.” I can’t think of an American actress who could nail the blank manner in which Huppert delivers the line: the blankness of a woman used to dealing with facts crisply; in one stroke Heinz refutes the central fact of her life. Mia Hansen-Løve has herself written and directed a film of crispness and solidity, a film that starts modest but increases in poignance as it approaches its final act. Things to Come is a worthy successor to Hansen-Løve’s Eden and Goodbye, First Love.
Before this turmoil, though, the most stressful thing in Nathalie’s life is dealing with a mother suffering from dementia (Edith Scob of Holy Motors). As fans of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher understand, anytime Huppert has an onscreen maman all bets are off as to who will survive the encounter. “How can you marry a guy with name like that?” she asks about Heinz. Fighting the publishers who want to repackage her classic textbook is the other turf war. The first meeting doesn’t go well; the new edition should be “modern, aggressive, and catchy,” explains one of the young turks, who also pushes Nathalie to accept the demands of “facilitators and product tie-ins.” But the lady’s not for turning. Students on strike receive the usual Huppert froideur, in this case a consequence of perhaps too much exposure to Minima Moralia. “You can’t stop me from working!” she tells them, as if this was their intention.
Casual about its erudition, Things to Come also plugs into its heroine’s nonchalance, a strategy she has used to cope with the world but whose wisdom she now challenges. Hansen-Løve introduces another discordance: Roman Kolinka as Fabien, a former student of Nathalie’s who has since written a marvelous essay on Horkheimer and a member of a group of anarchists living in the countryside. Intrigued, possibly attracted to him, having lots of spare time, Nathalie visits the camp, where she has to listen to drivel aimed at mushy liberals like herself content to work within the system while Fabien, spearing fruit and cheese to eat with his jam-covered bread, enjoys the sureness of bourgeois gastronomy; he also, less charmingly, has a tendency to sing Woody Guthrie while driving. Hansen-Løve’s touch is light; she indicts no one, her compositions giving the characters the space to air their views.
But Things to Come is Huppert’s movie. Whether rejecting the groping hand of a perv in a movie theater (at a screening for Certified Copy, heretofore unrecognized for its aphrodisiacal qualities) or savoring her first cigarette in years, she has a presence that would threaten the stability of the rest of the cast, but Hansen-Løve is too shrewd; the difference between Things to Come and Aquarius, an estimable film undone by reverence to its star, is stark. Everyone is in a state of ferment, intellectual and sexual. Heinz and Natalie quarrel over who’s taking the copies of Levinas and The World as Will and Representation, reminding me of a possibly apocryphal story about Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell ready to kung fu each other over the complete set of Henry Adams’ history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. One of Fabien’s girlfriends sneers at the thought of a “repulsive Stalinist” A line of Rousseau’s that Nathalie quotes hangs over the film: “Woe to him who has nothing to desire! He loses everything he owns. We enjoy less what we obtain than what we desire, and are happy only before becoming so.” In its last ten minutes, Things to Come shows she finds a measure of peace without relinquishing her desires. A less blank, formidable, intelligent, and ridiculous actress than Huppert would have undercut its plausibility. Good show.