Nathalie’s husband has bought her flowers out of guilt, as husbands often do. After 25 years of marriage he has left his philosophy-teaching wife for another woman, and so on a visit to their former home he delivers a bouquet in a vase. Incensed by his nerve, Nathalie puts the flowers in a blue IKEA bag and tosses the whole thing in her building’s skip. A few moments later, she returns for the bag. She is nothing if not a pragmatist, after all.
The above scene from Things to Come is quietly its most definitive moment. Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth film is a character study of Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) as she weathers the storm of job troubles, an infirm mother and the unexpected end of her marriage. She has good days and bad days, but crucially she possesses the emotional grounding to realise that her life isn’t over. Even when it feels like her world is falling apart, she understands, it’s still sensible to save a good carrier bag.
“She’s not a victim so she doesn’t behave like a victim,” Isabelle says. “That doesn’t mean that she’s not hurt by what happens to her, but she guides her situation into something positive. Nathalie loses a lot of things which were important to her and sees that she’s never been so free. Maybe because she’s a philosophy teacher, she knows how to turn herself towards life.”
It’s understandable that Mia – who first met Isabelle when she played her daughter in a film 16 years ago – created the role specially for her, as both she and the character share the same searching intellect and robust nature. The actress is known for being protective of her personal life, but much about her is illuminated by the qualities she brings out in her most memorable performances. I ask what sustains Nathalie as the pillars of her life drop away. “I think it’s her intelligence,” she replies. “I’m not saying that being unhappy means being stupid, but I believe in the virtues of knowledge and education.” Throughout the film Nathalie is never seen without a book on the go, and Isabelle feels that this outlet provides her with succour. “I believe that you can find strength in books. I’ve found answers in books, in going to museums, in watching films. It’s about appreciating beauty, too, and that’s certainly something that helps her. It doesn’t solve everything, of course, but it’s good to believe in. Otherwise what can you believe in?”
Isabelle’s faith in the enriching power of film is unsurprising. After 45 years and roles in over 130 features, her career is a road map of modern European cinema. One of her country’s most accomplished actors and perhaps its most fearless, her films vary dramatically in content and tone, but her characters often boast an unsentimental fortitude that enables them to endure tremendous hardships. Nodding to the approach of her frequent collaborator Michael Haneke, she argues that avoiding mawkishness is pivotal. “Michael always says no sentimentality, which I perfectly understand. It doesn’t mean no emotion, but sentimentality reduces the chances of being genuinely emotional and of being true. It also reduces the chances of being good! For example, in Things to Come, there is no sentimentality and yet there is a huge amount of emotion. You can feel everything, but there is also a dignity in Nathalie’s behaviour and a sense of irony. It’s essential to have a certain distance that makes you consider all the parameters of the situation.”
Whether it’s due to her disposition or her long acting life, Isabelle is able to maintain a similar distance from her own body of work. “I’m not obsessed with films I did fifteen or twenty years ago,” she says. “It’s not really my problem to think about that. And anyway, history works differently as you leave it behind. Films which are very much of their time can appear like masterpieces when they’re done and then you see them decades later and they haven’t passed the years easily.” Without the “burden of inspiration” that a director has, Isabelle concludes that it’s healthier for her to just let go. “You expect from the director that in the end your character comes out as full as possible, as close to your own vision. That’s the case most of the time, but your final view is always a frustration in a way. As you act you build up your own imaginary film in your head, and at some point you have to face the fact that it’s not your film, it’s the director’s film.”
The actress ventures relentlessly forward with this in mind, as the five films she has coming out in the next year demonstrate. “I’m lucky enough because I constantly find good material to do and still have pleasure doing it,” she reflects. With an invigorating absence of false modesty, Isabelle admits that little daunts her, except perhaps a bad working relationship with a director. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I act quite easily. I don’t want to diminish the myth, but it’s more pleasure than effort for me, so it’s nice. I find it’s easier than anything else.”
Indeed, Isabelle is capable of enormous intensity in her performances, but her great skill has always been her comprehension of the power of small gestures. “You are aware of it without being aware of it,” she says. “It’s something that concerns you and doesn’t really concern the rest of the people on set. It’s your tool, your face.” Another non-shrug. “Being an actress is very pragmatic. It’s just work. There are challenges but they’re more about finding good things to do. Difficulties are part of the excitement – how to cope with what you can expect, how to cope with what you don’t expect – it’s such a texture of things that you can control and things that you can’t control. It’s difficult, perhaps, but acting is a very pleasant life.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three.