If you were a filmmaker creating a drama about an older woman in crisis whose intimidating character was inspired by your own mother, Mia Hansen-Love would have one piece of advice for you: Sign up France's most celebrated actress for the role.
Not only would Isabelle Huppert open up all the hope and energy your bittersweet scenario might have to offer, but the casting would guarantee that your flattered parent would enjoy the film.
"Maybe that is what sweetened the pill," Hansen-Love said with a laugh during an interview in French during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "My mother is a big fan of Isabelle Huppert; she always admired her. … At any rate, she took a great deal of pleasure in the film."
L'Avenir – or Things to Come in English – is not a hard film to take pleasure in. It is an intimate and delicate portrait of a Paris philosophy teacher as she loses her marriage, her mother and her publishing contract in short order. Still, you wouldn't want to be compared to Prof. Nathalie Chazeaux as she snaps at her narcissistic old mother or remains dry-eyed during the departure of her philandering husband. But Hansen-Love, 35, says she was inspired by her own mother, a philosophy instructor who is the author of several popular textbooks in France.
"This was a film that I felt I had to make, more than one that I wanted to make. I felt it was a duty rather than a pleasure," she said. Having made four previous films – her second, Father of My Children, won a special jury prize in Cannes's Un Certain Regard section in 2009 – she approached this project with trepidation.
"With a 20-year-old character, all paths are open. This was something much narrower, like a tunnel. I wondered how she would get out of it. I didn't want to betray the character or be afraid of what was cruel, difficult or dark in the subject … but I didn't see the resolution. In the end, I felt I wrote the script to see where it would lead but without any certainty of the ending, or confidence in myself."
But her doubts flew out the window when Huppert agreed to star. In France's tightly knit film industry, Hansen-Love had actually appeared on screen alongside Huppert in 2000 in Les destinées, one of two films in which the young filmmaker acted, both directed by Olivier Assayas, who is now her husband. And Huppert had admired Hansen-Love's more recent work, too, as a filmmaker.
"I couldn't imagine anyone but Isabelle in the film and from the moment she took it on and adopted the project, there was a dynamic that was the exact reverse of what frightened me," she said. "From that moment on, the film was all about life and joy."
She found Huppert grasped the character immediately and seldom needed direction: Director and star share an aversion to psychoanalyzing a character before they shoot.
"What I find remarkable about her is her instinct. She never intellectualizes a character," Hansen-Love said of Huppert's acting. "There is something in her work that speaks of genius, there's a modernity, a truth, an intensity without heaviness … the way in which she gives truth to every flutter of an eyelash just bowled me over throughout the shoot."
Huppert had just finished playing the title character in Elle, Paul Verhoeven's controversial portrait of a woman who refuses to play the victim after a sexual assault. Some critics have noted the two films are almost mirror images of each other, one offering a male view of a woman taking charge through sex, the other a female view of a woman taking charge without it.
"It would be hard to imagine two more different films and yet the two speak in opposing ways about liberty, emancipation," Hansen-Love said. "But the path to freedom for my character is totally different from what will do it for Verhoeven's character. I think you could speak there of feminine and masculine visions – in that way there's a mirroring. Plus there's a black cat in both films!"
As Hansen-Love investigated that search for independence through a film in which the main character finds herself even as she loses her responsibilities, the filmmaker gradually discovered it was as much about herself as her mother.
"Women of all ages wonder how to find a spiritual fulfilment that doesn't depend on relationships, a peace that doesn't depend on others – not rejecting others or lacking love but finding independence," she said. "All women pose that question at all ages: I do, without ever arriving at an answer."
And if the answer does lie in pursuing a career, then Hansen-Love has found the profession that speaks to her own philosophical side.
"I make films literally to create a barricade against time and death, but it's not a film that is going to cure you of that anxiety," she said. "The further the film progressed the more I had to realize this heroine was also me. In another context, I was having the same issues about liberty; I didn't think the film would resonate so much with my own life."
Things to Come opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.