The story is that Isabelle Huppert has two great performances out this year, and after the surprisingly enduring Elle, this is the other. This is one of those French films in which nothing really happens, we just hang out with a certain group of people for a while, find their exploits interesting, elliptically structured and surprisingly poignant, and then we leave without much of anything resolved, but c’est la vie, n’est-ce pas? And this is one of the better ones, and Huppert does indeed deliver a slow, subtle knockout.
Huppert is Nathalie, an aging philosophy professor. First, she is told by her publisher that her new book is not going to be published, and the successful collection of philosophical essays she edited is going to be redesigned with a garish new cover in order to appeal to younger readers. She has an aging, demented mother [played by Eyes Without a Face’s Edith Scob] who is always refusing to eat, threatening to kill herself, or some other thing that requires Nathalie’s immediate attention. Soon her husband leaves her, making her single again at almost 60. Over the course of the film, it seems that more and more is dropping away from Nathalie’s life, leaving her to reinvent herself and confront who she wants to be at the age most people are settling in.
Being French, it’s not a sob story, and Nathalie never has a breakdown or throws a huge scene, which can make it more poignant. Her fears come out in small gestures and certain subtle expressions, like when she is looking out a passenger seat window, a few tears streaming down her face, or she curls into bed alone with a certain expression of bewildered emptiness. Similarly, the film is unlikely to make you cry, but able to fill you with aching and admiration and love for its main character. If I had made a Best of 2016, this would definitely have been on it.
Throughout, Nathalie falls back on philosophy for comfort, and this is one of the few films in recent years, or decades, to have as a theme the ability of a strong intellectual background to help manage the pain of life’s knocks. Again and again Nathalie calls on her knowledge of philosophy, and quite a few quotes she delivers throughout the film speak to how an understanding of philosophy can give one personal strength in the face of crisis. And that content becomes one with Huppert’s performance, which carries the theme through her smallest gestures, her frail but resilient body language, her unfailingly civil and resolute demeanor, and the subtle currents of emotion she allows to cross her face.
So if you like those quiet and subtle French films without a big climax or big laughs that leave you quietly devastated and emerging from the theater with a bittersweet sense of life’s challenges and brief moments of sublimity, definitely make the effort for this one.