Film of the week: Things to Come

Back in the soup: Isabelle Huppert’s unloosed woman explores the nitty-gritty of unexpected, unnerving post-marital freedom in Mia Hansen-Løve’s delicate and disarming character portrait.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Kate Stables
Updated:

Only in a Mia Hansen-Løve film would the discovery of The Unabomber Manifesto in an anarchist commune prompt a discussion about the gap between thought and action rather than a call to the police. No-nonsense fiftysomething commune guest and heroine Nathalie (an enjoyably brusque Isabelle Huppert) pursues her interesting find with a curt rationality that uncovers a fading friendship, not a hot conspiracy.

It’s a neat move, typical of writer-director Hansen-Løve, who excels at taking potentially melodramatic situations and defusing them with careful emotional truths. Her films often centre on characters working through disaster or upheaval: the suicidal lovestruck teen of Goodbye First Love (2011), the family tragedy of Father of My Children (2009). In the wry, humane and thoughtful Things to Come, Nathalie’s late middle age is upended by a sudden eruption in her marriage, professional setbacks and the death of her demanding elderly mother. Yet the film treats this destabilising cluster of crises with extraordinary restraint.

Moments of high drama – the discovery of an affair, a dash to a suicide call – are despatched in a matter-of-fact manner, without fuss. Edith Scob’s neurotic, autocratic mother, a relentless and lonely botherer of the emergency services, is viewed with a flash of humorous sympathy rather than pity as she’s put into residential care (“These old folks make me want to puke”). And Huppert sums up a welter of suppressed emotions in a rueful, self-deprecating shrug as Nathalie greets the sudden news that her 25-year marriage is over: “But I thought you would love me for ever. What a fool.”

Able to slide from irritable to vulnerable within a sentence, Huppert is a sheer delight here, whether flirting with her radical intellectual protégé Fabien in front of her eye-rolling adult children, or shoving her husband’s farewell flowers savagely into the bin. Nathalie, a rigorously intelligent philosophy teacher, gives the actress a chance to utilise her often prickly screen persona to fine effect. It’s tempered nicely by that tough-and-tender stubbornness she paraded in White Material and in another tale of sudden midlife crisis, Villa Amalia (both 2009). Since Nathalie commands so much of the action, the surrounding characters, including her stolid, Kant-struck husband Heinz (André Marcon), are inevitably less well realised, though Roman Kolinka’s Fabien, as unsure as Nathalie whether they are edging towards a sexual or a scholarly bond, has a nice ambivalence about him.

Things to Come (L’Avenir, 2016)

One of the film’s most enjoyable aspects is its ability to show Nathalie’s unnerving freedom in all its ups and downs rather than as a hackneyed journey of self-discovery. Hansen-Løve’s script waits and watches patiently, without judging. It turns Nathalie’s self-pitying sobs on a Parisian bus into a peal of incredulous laughter at the cliché of spotting Heinz and his new love through the window.

Working hard to find both the images and the tone that will convey the intricacies of Nathalie’s situation, the film still retains a welcome briskness that mimics Huppert’s impatient stride, in contrast to the meandering pace that made Hansen-Løve’s 2014 Eden less focused. Stylistically unshowy but with a delicacy of composition that emphasises experience over drama, Denis Lenoir’s camerawork creates gorgeous Rohmerish moments, such as the sunlit grassy landscape that embraces a defiantly solitary Nathalie at her lowest point. Defiantly un-Rohmerish, however, is the film’s ever-present music, helpfully pointing up loss (Schubert), radicalism (Woody Guthrie) and the sharp, unexpected delight of a grandchild (A la claire fontaine, possibly the most wistful, lovelorn lullaby ever composed).

“I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually,” Nathalie remarks to Fabien when discussing her capsizing life, and for once this isn’t an abandoned wife’s juicy rationalisation. Philosophy and its uses and abuses are woven thickly through the script, as when Nathalie responds to student demonstrations by setting her class to consider Rousseau’s theory-versus-practice thoughts on democracy.

Things to Come (L’Avenir, 2016)

Unabashedly bookish, the film is acute and often slyly funny about the succour (and snobberies) of the life of the mind for Parisian intellectuals. Nathalie rages at the ravages of divorce on her bookshelves (the loss of a hand-annotated Levinas grieves her especially) and at her publisher’s cack-handed attempts to ‘humanise’ her austere philosophy textbooks.

That this isn’t simply intellectual window-dressing is underlined when Nathalie’s poignant address at her mother’s funeral enlists one of Pascal’s Pensées to mirror her own spiralling uncertainty: “I know neither my condition nor my duty.” In time, Rousseau and her own cussed self-sufficiency can even help her rally, and soldier on (“If happiness fails to come, hope persists”). Yet despite its high-mindedness, the film’s real art lies in its ability to present the hard and complex business of surviving life in a disarmingly simple way.

 

In the September 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

The S&S Interview: Isabelle Huppert

One of the finest and most adventurous actors of her generation, Isabelle Huppert has proved unforgettable in a series of key roles for the likes of Maurice Pialat, Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke and Claire Denis since her debut in 1971. Here she discusses her earliest memories of cinema, the art of great performances and what it was like to work with Gérard Depardieu again for the first time in 35 years. Interview by Nick James.

 

An autumn tale

When her children leave home, her husband runs off with another woman, and her career as a philosophy lecturer starts to hit the skids, sixtysomething Nathalie finds herself facing a newfound freedom that is also a gaping void, in Mia Hansen-Løve’s warm, funny drama Things to Come. By Catherine Wheatley.

 

→ Buy a print copy
Access the digital edition
Subscribe

More from this issue

Access the digital edition

Back to the top