Some years ago, Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) was on holiday with her family and they visited a beach where she was suddenly captivated by a plaque on the wall which told of a famous writer who once stayed there and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the ocean and landscape, asking if any visitors could do the same. Move forward to the present, and Nathalie is older but she feels as if her life will more or less stay the same by this point, a state of mind that will be challenged over the course of this year. It starts when her elderly mother (Edith Scob) phones her up in the middle of the night claiming to be suffering a panic attack; she really needs to be in a retirement home where staff can look after her, not Nathalie.
But by this point she is used to her mother causing her this hassle, and at least it makes Nathalie feel necessary in a story that the further it went on rendered its protagonist less and less essential to everyone in her life. It was the film writer and director Mia Hansen-Løve followed her DJ culture yarn Eden with, and like that tended to divide audiences between those who thought she was onto something with her observations, and those who thought this was a rather vague, windy and hard to care about effort, with few in the middle ground to weigh up its good points and bad. Not that there were many bad points, as she has cannily employed Isabelle Huppert, who in 2016 enjoyed a renaissance as few other actresses of her age could boast.
This was Huppert we were talking about, so she had never particularly suffered a career lull, always in demand as one of the most individual and reliable performers to emerge from France and always delivering something worth watching, even when she was in a supporting role, so it would be no surprise to her fans that she lifted what was rather mournful material with a spark of life, promising that no matter how irrelevant Nathalie was becoming to those who once relied on her, she was not going away until it was her time to shuffle off the old mortal coil. This was a growing old narrative created by someone who had not reached that stage, so the impression was that Hansen-Løve could be presumptuous in her observations.
Yet with this star, she found the truth in the role, rendering Nathalie far more believable if, for example, the film had tried for laughs, wry or otherwise. This fear that once you genuinely have left the world of the living then nobody will bother to remember you since you never mattered so much to anyone that they will call you to mind was a somewhat paranoid one, and what made it worse here was Nathalie experienced it while she was very much alive and believing she still had plenty to offer. You don't imagine there's a soul in the plot who will be relieved when she dies, in a thank goodness that's over kind of way, so she's fortunate in that respect, but it was not that type of movie, it was the encroaching oblivion that was the true terror. This was not a horror in any way, but there was a nameless dread that grew stronger with each passing scene.
The most important element of this was when Nathalie's husband Heinz (André Marcon) leaves her suddenly for another, younger woman which brings her issues into focus, as she says, she thought they would be in love forever, yet now it is sinking in that forever will not feature her. She begins to actively create a scenario where she will be forgotten or not needed, as if the effects of it happening unintentionally were contributing to her conscious mind and she was even encouraging the process, putting her mother in that home, not pursuing Heinz and accepting she will never stay in their beloved holiday home ever again, and trying to find someone who will take in her cat. Hansen-Løve said the character was a tribute to her own mother, with whom Nathalie shared some details, but if so it wasn't a reassuring one: be prepared for nobody caring anymore was not what everyone would tell their parents. However, Huppert makes her matter to some people regardless: us watching in the audience, who after spending time with her have some investment in her happiness. Low key, but quietly powerful.