Film Review: Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert astonishes yet again as a teacher of philosophy who has to reinvent her life just when most people would be thinking of retiring in this steely, beautiful, intellectually hungry story from Mia Hansen-Løve.
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After taking a detour into the vagabond world of dance-music DJs with the disappointingly blah Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve returns fantastically to form with Things to Come. It’s the kind of urbane, Éric Rohmer-inflected drama that the still-young writer-director has been turning out for a few years now and hopefully will continue to make for decades to come. There are any number of filmmakers who can make stories about Parisians with matters of the world and the heart weighing them down. But few approach them with the kind of questing emotional honesty that Hansen-Løve specializes in.

Isabelle Huppert stars as Nathalie. She’s a philosophy teacher approaching some sort of late midlife crisis. Things appear fine on the surface, what with her steady job, many publications, a husband and children, and many students who look up to her. But Hansen-Løve, whose Goodbye First Love and Father of My Children were also pocket masterpieces of transformation, starts dropping hints of frustration into Nathalie’s life very early on.

Her publisher wants to tart up her books to appeal to a broader demographic. That admiring ex-student of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), has a brand of intellectually rebellious discipline that appeals to a younger version of herself. Her mother Yvette (Edith Scob) is an attention-seeking ex-model whose approach to the encroachment of her senior years is theatrical terror. Nathalie is already nearing a cusp even before her quiet, dutiful husband, Heinz (André Marcon), announces that he’s leaving to be in love with another woman as matter-of-factly as if he were reading the stock reports.

There’s a truly terrible film to be made here, wasting the likes of Emma Thompson or Meryl Streep on a hacky journey of self-discovery and easily overcome heartache. But Hansen-Løve takes an unusual turn. Instead of launching Nathalie into a frenzy of crockery-smashing despair and then a realization that she must Get On With Things, the film follows her on an initially meandering and then ever-more-gripping exploration of what in the hell she’s going to do with the rest of her life.

Although Nathalie is an academic, being inhabited by Huppert means that she’s a tight fist of confrontation always on the verge of being unleashed. After a brief introductory passage that shows her with husband and children in earlier years, the first time we see Nathalie she’s shoving through a scrum of student protestors, trying to get to class. This isn’t because she is disconnected from the world. In fact, Nathalie is tightly wired to everything around her; there isn’t much, conceptual or actual, that escapes her piercing gaze.

Some of the more quietly riveting sections of Things to Come follow Nathalie to Fabien’s quasi-commune of studious anarchists, no film about Parisian intellectuals being complete without at least one sojourn to the lush and leafy countryside. At first, one expects that Nathalie, with her wire-taut sense of philosophical rigor, is going to grill these somewhat fuzzy-headed idealists for their unrealistic goals. But being cut adrift from her usual surroundings, and unsure how to carry on, Nathalie welcomes the implied questioning of her bourgeois assumptions.

Just as Nathalie’s eyes keep opening ever wider to the world, which she realizes is not going to offer any clear-cut solution to the problem of how she’s going to live the rest of her life, Hansen-Løve keeps pinning the viewers’ gaze to the gorgeousness and pain of the world Nathalie is struggling to navigate. The combination of Huppert’s stark clarity and Hansen-Løve’s questing curiosity produces a kind of cinematic rapture that doesn’t come around that often.

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