Isabelle Huppert’s filmic renaissance of late came specifically with the one-two punch releases of Elle and Things to Come (known simply as L’Avenir in French) back during the high season of the New York Film Festival. Both were revered, both prominently featured a black cat as a companion/central character. But more than a focus on the feline, each film spotlights a female protagonist in control of her own destiny.
At times, however, it appears as though destiny is determined to make Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) very uncertain indeed. As a philosophy professor for many decades, the students at the school she attempts to teach at during a protest briefly prevent her from entering the grounds, only to be taught a valuable lesson in Huppert’s distinct ability to project the sentiment, “I don’t give a fuck.” Her general unflappability is in keeping with the majority of characters Huppert has brought to life on the silver screen over the years, and just when you think one of the many annoyances in her life might emotionally deter her, it doesn’t. As is the case with her histrionic, demanding of constant attention mother, Yvette Lavastre (Édith Scob), who calls her threatening suicide on a regular basis. The incompetence she deals with in her profession won’t seem to let up either, with her publisher’s insistence on revamping the cover artwork and content of her philosophical tome for the sake of appealing to a more “mainstream” audience a perpetual looming threat.
The chaos that peppers most of the second act, in fact, is in direct contrast to the opening scene of the movie, which finds Nathalie and her husband, Heinz (André Marcon), vacationing in tranquility at their country home in Brittany, where they’ve gone every year with their family for the duration of their twenty-five year marriage. Visiting the grave of François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand, the founder of Romanticism in French literature, the portentous lingering of her husband at the grave longer than Nathalie signals a death of some other kind.
But before the storm that is about rain down on Nathalie comes, she is evermore the brilliant teacher-student of philosophy, referencing and quoting every formidable thinker from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Blaise Pascal. In the latter’s case, her reading of his signature work, Pensées, dredges up the aphorism, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” This becomes the case for Nathalie after all the aspects that once theoretically tied her down have now set her free, and she is left with really no one except her ex-student and protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), to turn to for stimulation–though never of the physical kind, for as Nathalie notes of her age, “Women over forty are fit for the trash.” It’s a harsh assessment, but in keeping with Nathalie’s no-nonsense attitude about all things, pragmatism being the only natural result of how to live her life. Still, even the hardened philosopher can’t help but succumb to emotions now and again, as she does while visiting Fabien and his girlfriend at their remote country home with her mother’s cat, Pandora–which she has now claimed as her own. The severity with which Fabien acts in executing a school of thought that Nathalie would never have believed him capable of subscribing to ultimately ends up disappointing her–try as she might to sustain the aforementioned coolheadedness.
But it is in finally admitting that she is not necessarily the arbiter of her emotions, indeed susceptible to the actions of those close to her, that she finds order, rather than the expected chaos resulting from surrendering her hardened sense of logic and reason. In this way, all things to come transform into being full of promise rather than despair.