The title Things to Come may conjure in the viewer many conflicting feelings. Whether it be a sort of reminder that the best is yet ahead, an inducement of a fatalistic attitude, or even a memento mori, Mia Hansen-Løve foregrounds the idea of the inevitable. However, her film concerns itself solely with the present, anchoring itself in the rush of human experience with vigor and beauty. Centering on Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy professor living sometime in the late 2000s, Things to Come follows her life over the course of a year (with a brief prologue and extended epilogue) as she deals with marital problems, her aging and weakened mother (played with verve by Édith Scob), and engages in more academic matters. On the surface, this premise would smack of weightlessness, but Hansen-Løve imbues it with a light, always consequential import.
The key to the success of Things to Come is, perhaps inevitably in this year, the magnificence of Isabelle Huppert. For one, her ability to relay weighty philosophical ideas both in lecture and in casual conversation with her family and friends is impressive in more than one sense of the word; she is always persuasive and adamant in her belief, but it always feels like a conversation, like Huppert embodies Nathalie’s worldview and gives it life. Even more crucial is Huppert’s physicality, an odd term to be invoking in a film where no one moves more quickly than a brisk walk. Whether it be wading through a muddy beach to find a cell phone signal or moving through her apartment, she always seems to be in motion, never rudderless or lacking in purpose—though of course she does have many crises of faith or loneliness.
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The first of two remarkable performances from Isabelle Huppert this year comes as a teacher of philosophy who in late middle-age finds herself with a remarkable amount of freedom and not much idea of what to do with it. Saddled at the beginning of the film with a husband, adult children, friendly former students, an overbearing mother, and a book contract, she loses each one in turn. The husband admits he’s having an affair (“why tell me?” is her gloriously French deadpan response), the kids are off to school, the maddening publicity representatives of her publisher pelt her with inane ideas and finally cut her loose, the mother even dies, leaving her a cat. She takes the cat (Pandora, naturally) to the mountains, a remote writer’s commune, at the invitation of one of her former students. She hangs out with the idealistic twenty-somethings and listens to their deeply-felt internecine lefty squabbles and feels no connection to any of it: these passions are her past. Where Hansen-Løve’s last film, Eden (which played here at SIFF last year) was the life story of a man whose life never really got going, trapped in a perpetual loop of the early 20s, always on the verge but never quite becoming anything, until one day he’s middle-aged and never made it, Things to Come tackles what accomplishment means in life from the other end of the age spectrum. By any conventional standard, Huppert had it all: friends, family, fulfilling employment, but strip all that away and she finds she’s not much different from Eden‘s hero. We are, in most ways, defined by what we do and who we interact with on a daily basis, our role in life is too often conflated with our life itself. Hansen-Løve is after something else though, searching for an irreducible core to our humanity. If anyone can find it, Isabelle Huppert can.