Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 43 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5
Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
Lay aside any thought of the 1936 science fiction film of the same name when you go to see French writer/director Mia Hansen-Love’s film about a middle-aged woman facing loss. Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a Parisian high school philosophy teacher and writer. For 25 years she and her husband Heinz (André Marcon) have shared a marriage with little passion. He too is a teacher who loves books. Almost every wall of their apartment is lined with bookcases full of tomes belonging to both of them. Their two grown children are beginning a life on their own, though they keep in close touch. When the children discover their father has a mistress, they are upset by his deceit, telling him he must choose between the women. So, Heinz informs Nathalie that he has met someone and is leaving her. Shocked by his revelation, she responds wistfully, “I expected you to love me forever. What an idiot!” The gap in her life is well symbolized by the large spaces in their book shelves as Heinz packs his belongings and moves out.
Nathalie also is dealing with a troublesome elderly mother (Edith Scob) whose health is declining. Once a model, the vain woman seems to hate being sidelined, removed from public attention, so she does all the wrong things to gain attention from the world that has shoved her aside. Because her health is bad as her attitude, and the local emergency squad growing tired of being called to her apartment several times a week, Nathalie places her in a retirement home where “the smell of death” is in the air. Soon the daughter is planning with a priest her mother’s funeral.
Another loss is interwoven through the film as she meets several times with two editors of her philosophy text book that she had written. In the new edition, the two propose all kinds of graphic changes that will make the book more appealing to young people. Regarding their suggestions as a watering down that will probably flow over into her text, Nathalie is disturbed by this. The eventual outcome of their negotiations is not pleasant.
She is cheered up by a meeting up with her favorite former pupil, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Brilliant and free spirited, he soon makes it apparent that their beliefs and thoughts no longer move in parallel lines, so she senses another loss, that of the influence over him that she once had enjoyed. There is still another loss, apparent in the moving sequence when she goes to the family’s sea-side cottage to pack up some of her possessions. The place belongs to Heinz’s family, so she knows this will be her last visit, painful because it holds so many fond memories of vacations spent with the children and long, meditative walks along the beach.
Fabien has surprised her by giving up a promising academic career and moving into a commune of anarchists situated in the foothills of the Alps. Her deciding to pay them a visit, after several scenes where the older teacher and young man have enjoyed each other’s company, lead us at first to think this might be turning into a Fall/Spring time romance. However, this is not a Hollywood production—you know, wherein the heroine has one or two female friends telling her that the answer to her loneliness is to find a new man. From her numerous references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Blaise Pascal, and others, we know that philosophy is not just an academic matter for her. It informs and supports her everyday life.
When Fabien picks her up at the train station, she almost celebrates her new-found freedom—free from a dull, uncaring husband, free from being responsible for her children; free from having to suddenly dash off to deal with a crisis involving her mother; and apparently free of her job now. There is one responsibility she still is saddled with, one that adds a note of humor—her mother’s large cat with which she travels, placing it in a pet carrier. At the farm, she is relieved of it when it proves that its instinct for catching mice is still strong.
Things to come for Nathalie by the end of the film are uncertain. She knows that freedom also involves loneliness. We see that she is a very resilient woman, one who, if not faith, certainly has her philosophy to support her to cope with her losses. She shows this during the scene when, from the window of a Parisian bus, she spots Heinz walking with a woman very much younger than he. For a moment, she apparently feels the pang of rejection, but suddenly she bursts out laughing. I presume it is at the absurdity of Heinz following the usual path of the older man seeking his youth by leaving a wife of appropriate age for someone barely out of adolescence.
In the classroom, Nathalie has told her students, “So long as we desire, we can do without happiness.” The things that have come in her life are putting this to the test. This thought comes from the excerpt she reads to the class from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s wildly popular 18th century novel Julie, or the New Heloise: “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.” Words to live by? Nathalie will find out. One thing for certain, she will be her own person, not needing to find and cling to a new man for security and identity, like so many women in romance novels. I think director/writer Mike Mills would approve of her as a fit companion for the three characters in his 20th Century Women.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.