This honest, human film by French director Mia Hansen-Løve wrapped me in its warm embrace and, as the camera pulled slowly out on the final scene and the harmonic tones of the Fleetwoods began to sing, it brought me to tears. Not overly sad, the story of a 60-something-year-old woman assessing her life resonated deeply.
Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a respected teacher of philosophy. She is at the beck and call of her anxious, elderly mother (Edith Scob) and lives a contented life in parallel with her old-fashioned husband Heinz (André Marcon) and grown-up children. A former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), re-enters her life and she is energised and appreciative of his passion for radical thought and actions, a part of her youth that she has left behind.
Everything about her life seems solid and successful – her textbooks and published essays are admired, she is respected in her field, her commitment to encouraging students to think freely is resolute and her family are happy. Then her husband announces he is leaving her for another woman. Like in The Commune, that tackled a similar subject, the temptation could be to show Nathalie’s life falling apart. It is a familiar trope – a man at 60 can find a new relationship, redefine his life if he chooses, but a woman’s best years are past her. Not so with Nathalie. Her belief in philosophy shapes her thoughts and actions and she accepts each change and every challenge with equanimity. Only occasionally does her frustration show – when she discovers Heinz has taken some of her favourite books or when, alone in bed at night, she submerges in loneliness.
Some of the most interesting scenes are when she visits Fabien in his anarchist, mountain farm retreat, full of idealistic young people passionately debating ideas. Nathalie listens in silence, the need to rail against life rather than accept it something she has left behind. There is wisdom in this – life isn’t fair, nothing lasts, you don’t get what you want – and Nathalie’s acceptance of this allows her to endure, giving her mostly the ‘deep piece’ of the Donovan song.
Hansen-Løve refrains from judgement. From the outside, Nathalie’s choices seem passive – she is ever the helper, clearing dishes, cooking for her children, nurturing her monstrous mother – and there is a sense that she is living life at one remove, willingly cut off from the passions and risks that bring us pain but also joy. She is able, however, to move on with her life in a way it seems her immutable husband, who has held the same views his whole life, struggles to do. Huppert, of course, is absorbing and completely believable as Nathalie. She is in almost every scene and although superficially inscrutable, as we follow her, we begin to see her thoughts and the world through her eyes.
At one point Nathalie quotes Rousseau to her students, “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.” Does Nathalie have anything to desire? Or has she realised that to hold onto past contentment, old joy as Kelly Reichardt might describe it, stops one from truly experiencing happiness? Does the final scene represent her new desire, the joy of ‘things to come’?
Currently in cinemas
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