In 2014, Mia Hansen-Løve made what may turn out to be the definitive art-house dance-music movie: Eden, a loosely fact-based account of club kids coming of age in Paris in the 1990s, when electronica was ascendant and Daft Punk was literally playing at your house (and without masks). The film's focus on beautiful, bittersweet youth was of a piece with the French director's earlier work, which was similarly focused on the tender sensations of adolescence. If contemporary French cinema has a poet laureate of teenage melancholy, Hansen-Løve would be it: Jer movies resonate with the angst of kids either growing up too fast or not fast enough.
Which is why it's a little surprising that the 35-year-old director's new film, which won a major prize in Berlin before heading to TIFF back in September, is focused on an older woman. In Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a long-tenured philosophy teacher at a Parisian university whose comfortable existence gets upended by the revelation of her husband's adultery—and leads her into a difficult process of self-evaluation. "I've been asked a lot about the fact that she's an older character," says Hansen-Løve, "but she's very much still connected to youth—youth is essential for her. That's the irony of the story. I realized how crucial youth was to the character, and how it gives her strength and joy and energy to move on."
The contrast between Eden's story of kids trapped in a hedonistic, immature loop, and Things to Come's account of an older woman trying to recapture the fresh sensations of days gone by is fascinating, and not coincidental: The new film was written during a period of intense frustration when Hansen-Løve was making her techno epic. "Nothing was going to the way it was supposed to with Eden," she recalls, "and I was sitting at my desk with all these different notes for that film spread out, and then to the side I had my Things to Come material—it was like a way to escape. If my desk had been empty, I don't think that Things to Come would have been possible."
The other thing that made Things to Come possible was the casting of Huppert, who is currently on a run that could cement her as one of the greatest European actresses of her generation, if not ever: Her work as Nathalie is the equal of any of her other recent, acclaimed performances, including her Oscar-buzzed work in Paul Verhoeven's Elle. "What she said about working with me was that I directed her and that Paul Verhoeven didn't," says Hansen-Løve, who is a Verhoeven fan (Eden includes a long scene where the characters argue about the merits of Showgirls). "She enjoyed doing my film, I think. We never had long conversations about the character; she's so smart that she gets every nuance without you telling her. There's a line in the film where she's supposed to say 'mmm hmm,' and she asked me what kind of 'mmm hmm' I wanted and all the meanings it could have. She's so precise about [how] she expresses herself."
That precision is also evident in Hansen-Løve's own writing and directing, which has never been better. Nathalie's vocation as a philosophy professor is not incidental to the story; instead, Hansen-Løve uses her job as a way to open the material up to lofty, existential themes. At the same time, Things to Come is a very concrete piece of work, filled with nods and allusions to real books, movies, and pieces of music—a specificity that is the director's signature.
One curious choice, however, is the inclusion of "Unchained Melody," which is a bold move even decades after that sexy pottery scene in Ghost. As for why she used it, Hansen-Løve says,"I didn't know. That's why. I had seen the movie, but I forgot. I only knew about it because when I asked for the rights to the song, they were so expensive and I asked 'why?' and they told me because it was used in Ghost."
"I'm not trying to make references," she explains. "I hate references. I'm not trying to show that I know things, or to prove anything like that. It's more about a relationship to reality and to concrete things. The titles of books and songs, or the names of places and streets... in Goodbye, First Love, the main character goes to the river at the end, and I thought it was very important that I show the actual name of the river. I like naming things."
With this in mind, the most significant name in Things to Come may belong to its most important secondary character—Pandora, the rotund black cat that Nathalie is forced to adopt in the midst of her mother's illness. This year has been a very good one for movies featuring Isabelle Huppert acting opposite a cat—see also: Elle—and Hansen-Løve laughs at the comparison. "The big difference—and I think it is a metaphysical difference—is that the cat in Verhoeven's movie is a professional cat, and our cat was an unprofessional one," she says. "I do think you can start from that to explain the difference between our movies. I love Elle, but there are two very different approaches. For me, the cat has a lot to do with a loss of control, so it was important to have this fat cat that never did what was expected of her."
Things to Come is out in theaters December 2.