Disaster connotes terrible, tragic, and ill-timed events. This expectation makes Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 film L’avenir (Things to Come) moving and insightful. For her, disaster is instead the predictable milestones of human life.
Nathalie Chazeaux is a middle-aged philosophy professor working in Paris, mired in an intellectually fulfilling but routine life. When young protesters bar entrance to her school, she pushes through their shouts and quotes Rousseau to her class. Centuries have tested his ideas and still they govern; protesters bicker over details of policy. Nathalie, like Rousseau, is stability.
Until disaster strikes. Barraged by crises – the decline and death of her mother, her children’s departure from home, a cheating husband – Nathalie’s life shatters into unfamiliar territory that is both freeing and depressing. She turns to Fabien, a clever former student, for support. He is an radical intellectual willing to sleep on the Parisian streets to protest, but trades city life to live on a farm nestled below the Alps. Nathalie decides to spend her summer vacation there, and is welcomed by Fabien and a cohort of anarchist writers eager for revolution.
Nathalie’s response to her troubles is unspectacular: she cries frequently, takes solace in a cat, and buries herself in books; however, it is this mundanity that proves her strength. Unlike most midlife-crisis stories, she does nothing drastic like quitting her job or making a splashy purchase. Her coping mechanisms are simple, benign, and harmless. When asked by Fabien if she is going to shake up her life, she replies that her intellectual life is plenty fulfilling.
On the farm Nathalie learns more about her prized student. His friends are working to destroy the notion of authorship; stowed on a bookshelf is a copy of the Unabomber manifesto. The group claims they are committed to revolution, but live contentedly in an Alpine paradise. Fabien and his pals get high, play in mountain streams, and write about changing the world. When asked why she does not want revolution, Nathalie responds that she is too old; not that she is incapable, but that she no longer thinks it the best option. She admits to being a communist for several years in her youth, but is long past that. Fabien is disappointed.
Nathalie and Fabien’s contrasting conceptions of and responses to disaster are barometers for their wisdom and maturity. Nathalie never expounds her personal beliefs, but her philosophy bleeds through her actions. Faced with disaster she prioritizes her children and students, steadily beats away sadness with time and reading, and never lashes out. Fabien’s situation is superb – in addition to the beautiful farm, he has a charming girlfriend and a book deal – yet he is bitter at the world for its flaws. He sees disaster in everything and champions a philosophy of radical revolt, but his life is pleasant and self-centered. Spurred by Nathalie’s rejection of the idea that the cost of radical progress might be human life, Fabien claims she is a hypocrite because she thinks grandly about change but does not act. Nathalie rebuts that her philosophy does not preclude a comfortable lifestyle, and she acts by teaching her students to think for themselves. She refrains from accusing Fabien of anything, although he seems the bigger hypocrite.
Nathalie returns from the mountains to Paris and reenters the grind. She accepts and moves past her disasters and continues teaching what she cares about. The film ends with a demonstration of Nathalie’s strength: her husband’s girlfriend has left him alone on Christmas and he pines to spend it with her and their kids, but she shoos him out of her apartment. She does not need him; she does not sympathize; she is confident in her decisions and her independence.
The film’s brilliance is its simplicity (and its acting). Personal disaster is inevitable and brought on by the steady creep of time. Though it culminates in a single event like death or divorce, it is never truly sudden. Nathalie’s wisdom and strength do not shield her from disaster, but they do not break under its pressure, either. She is a strong character because she allows herself to be sad and suffer, but remains confident about her outlook and her choices. She maintains perspective despite the emotional turmoil, and lets time soothe her wounds.
Through Nathalie and Fabien, Hansen-Løve says that youth is angry when it should be relishing the gifts of health and freedom, and that age and experience are humble, resolved, and a little boring. Changing the world is an everyday process, done by teaching, caring for a sick relative, and raising children. Fabien’s altruism is an illusion: moving to the mountains to plan revolution helps no one. You cannot save up time and energy to make change all at once: you have to make it every day. Disaster will one day strike Fabien like it will everyone, and no grandiose or complex philosophy will guard against the pain. The better option is to keep pushing forward, manifesting benevolence through a consistent, generous, intellectual, and practical life.