Image source: IMP Awards
Over the past few months, my obsession with women has reached new heights. I read their writing obsessively and inhale their movements in films as if there is a microscope placed over the screen of my laptop. When Isabelle Huppert comes on screen as Nathalie Chazeaux, it’s hard not to be transfixed. For one, she’s a woman.
Things to Come opens with a shot of her hands: she is gripping a pen between her thumb and index finger and is writing feverishly on a sheet of paper that is already crammed with tiny sentences. A tap on the glass window next to her pulls her out of her reverie, and just like that, time starts to flow differently for the rest of the film.
When Huppert acts as Nathalie, she uses her muscles and expressions in the same way that I imagine Joan Didion did when she exercised her mind while writing. As a middle-aged philosophy professor, Nathalie is constantly teaching her students to think for themselves and to challenge the mediocre ideologies that the world throws at them. She hasn’t figured everything out, but several years of teaching have dropped her at midlife with equal and comfortable amounts of wisdom and intellect.
However, as the film progresses, Nathalie’s solid foundation begins to crumble. With each new situation that arises, my mind wanders to random book and film titles that seem apt for them. Things Fall Apart for when her 25-year-old marriage dissolves into a puddle of nothingness — her philosopher husband Heinz (played by André Marcon) leaves her and moves out [“I thought you’d love me forever. What an idiot.”] Her aging mother (played by Édith Scob), is unable to let go of the memory of the beautiful model that she once was and lies in bed all day, riddled with anxiety and fear. Even her children seem disconnected from her. However, amidst all of the subtle confusions in her life, Nathalie’s apartment always remains clean. There are never any blue cushions on the floor or dirty coffee cups lining her sink.
It is at this point that I realize that I have stopped paying close attention to the overall storyline, and I am focusing on her clothing instead. Blue is the warmest colour (an excellent film, by the way) in every scene. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by the costume designers, but Nathalie’s outfits range from pastel shades that dot the peripheries of wedding photographs, to darker indigos and navy blues. Her interaction with the colour is akin to her conversations with the people around her: she appears interested but gazes at them all unseeingly.
When her favourite student Fabian is introduced, I am almost annoyed but thankfully, he doesn’t take up any unnecessary room. Their intriguing friendship teeters on the brink of a will-they-won’t-they sort of relationship; I spend long stretches of time simply hoping. Is she even attracted to him, or does he represent the freedom that she is suddenly left holding singlehandedly and doesn’t know what to do with?
A visit to the primitive house where Fabian lives with other young philosophers is the first time I notice her smile. By now, half the film is over; Nathalie wears red for the first time. Is she genuinely happy? It’s hard to say because her smile never reaches her eyes. She runs through the stunning French countryside gingerly, as if treading with vigour would somehow ruin the perfect stillness of nature. At some point during her vacation, she lies in bed, crying tears of sadness and acceptance. That same night, she stands outside and the hills that surround her are tinged with cobalt blue. She goes home the next day wearing navy and grey.
Her solitude is sometimes deafening because in those moments of sudden quiet, I find myself weighed down by my own weird expectations from the moment. Huppert exudes power even in moments when she isn’t really doing anything, like drinking coffee or half-listening when people talk to her in meetings. A few days after returning home from her trip, she begins crying on the bus. Here, her stoic and analytical persona disappears momentarily. Until that moment, she hasn’t indulged in self-pity. As she breaks down, I realise that there is a certain privateness that comes with breaking down in public. Interestingly, she wears a sleeveless red dress in a scene that is otherwise tinged with an intense sadness.
As the film gradually draws to a close, she becomes a grandmother and spends more time with Fabian. The overweight cat that is bequeathed to her from her deceased mother seems reluctant to spend too much time with her, and she eventually gives Pandora away. Have I been watching the film through Pandora’s eyes this whole time? While I am in awe of Huppert’s ability to make me feel so deeply about a woman who is, in short, going through a variety of changes, I am also uncomfortable with my reactions to her acting. Huppert’s portrayal of a woman who is experiencing change and accepting a newfound freedom uses silence as both a tool and a mirror that we must all use sometimes to examine where we are in our own lives, when changes come our way.
Things to Come ends with Nathalie cradling her fussy grandchild, while Fleetwood Mac’s rendition of Unchained Melody lingers softly in the background. As the credits roll, a warm orange light bathes the room. There are no shades of blue to be found.
Amelia David is an avid reader of fiction, a student of English literature, and an individual who hopes to break away from writing personal essays. When she isn’t eating chocolate chip cookies by the handful, she blogs occasionally at https://pretendedconfusion.wordpress.com/.