Milo Garner reviews Mia Hansen-Løve’s intimate character study – which earned Isabelle Huppert a London Critics Circle award ahead of her Oscar nomination for Elle.
According to The New York Times’ A. O. Scott, Isabelle Huppert is the ‘world’s greatest actress’. This might be just as true without the gender restriction, and her performance in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come in no way contradicts the assessment. Huppert takes the part of Natalie, at the film’s start a middle-aged philosophy teacher, who is happily (or contently) married with two children and has a publishing deal on the side. The part is strongly based on Hansen-Løve’s own mother, and was written with Huppert in mind. Over the course of the film Natalie’s life slowly falls apart: her job is threatened by strikes, her husband reveals his infidelity, her children approach adulthood, and her publishers drop her collection. The narrative follows Natalie in response to this upheaval, and explores how she copes and changes.
Things to Come is striking in its subversion of genre norms – instead of falling into crisis and turmoil to build to a singular point of anagnorisis, Natalie displays extraordinary resilience and wilfulness in the face of disaster. Though some signs of insecurity or weakness occasionally slip beneath Huppert’s powerful gaze, her character’s primary state is one of forward momentum, or at least an attempt at such. This is reflected in the film’s blocking, which emphasises movement, and even in the narrative, which has our protagonist constantly travelling back and forth around her city and country. Huppert’s touches to the character also cannot be ignored. In one particular moment emphasised for comedy, for example, after tossing her husband Heinz’s (André Marcon) meek floral apology first into an IKEA bag and then into the rubbish, Natalie returns to the scene after just enough time to, of course, retrieve the IKEA bag. Though scripted, the timing and performance make the scene. In fact in a Q&A writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve claimed the script itself wasn’t written as particularly humorous, but that Huppert is capable of extracting humour from any scene that might present any. If this is the case she should be afforded a good deal of credit for the film’s success. Its often downbeat and philosophical narrative is lifted by realistic moments of everyday comedy, especially when rendered so well by a master of her craft.
The philosophical themes of the film are also interesting both in their presentation and discussion, with the central debate taking place between Natalie and her protégé student Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Between them is a slight undercurrent of potential romance, though something that doesn’t quite break near the surface, but also a divergence in belief – while Natalie lives a self-aware bourgeois lifestyle, Fabien has grown ever more radical, abandoning Paris for an anarchist retreat in the mountains. The primary collision concerns the purpose of philosophy. Fabien sees it as necessary to put thought into action, and to change society according to the ideas he purports. This almost falls into farce when he and his anarchist friends become trapped in a debate around whether their writings should appended with an author, or left anonymous to better represent the plight against individualism. Conversely, Natalie prefers philosophy as a tool to think critically, and to open the minds of the young – she remembers her ‘three years’ as a communist with some regret, recognizing, or at least thinking, Fabien’s radicalism to be a brief phase rather than a lifestyle. This engagement shows another facet of Natalie’s life questioned and shaken, though here, as elsewhere, she stays resolute. Some bonus points should also be awarded for her description of Žižek as ‘fishy’.
Another key interaction of the film is between Natalie and her old, depressed mother (Édith Scob) – and her cat. Natalie’s mother is in many ways her daughter’s opposite: prone to histrionics, incapable of being alone for too long, and a former model, she represents one of Natalie’s most trying difficulties throughout the film. She constantly falls into depressive episodes (or claims to for attention) and so calls Natalie or, indeed, the fire service at all hours of the day (and night). Naturally, as soon as her daughter arrives everything seems to be well, and these moments are often filled with comedic frustration on Natalie’s part, eventually leading her to send her mother to a home for the elderly, though not without misgivings. It isn’t long after this that she receives word her mother has passed. At probably her least stable moment reads from Pascal’s Pensées at her funeral: ‘I know neither my condition nor my duty’. This represents the lowest ebb in her development, and one that contradicts her earlier, quite truthful claim to being ‘intellectually fulfilled’. In the bus journey returning from the service (not a wise mode of transport in such a context) she finally breaks, if for a moment, and shows that despite her strong ability to resist and adapt to her life twisting itself out of shape, it is not without impact.
The remnants of these feelings remain for a while longer, with her mother’s cat, Pandora, falling into her ownership. Though outwardly disdainful of the creature, later scenes are more telling to her true nature. When spending time at the anarchist farm in the moments, Pandora escapes and runs into the woods, and so Natalie stays out deep into the night calling her name – not likely the act of someone who didn’t care for the animal at all. On its return the next morning she embraces it happily – Pandora essentially functions as a metaphor for her relationship with her mother, ostensibly aggravated but truly one of heart, though also one destined to end, as Pandora is to be given away. That Pandora is rather burdensome, being an ‘obese’ cat that Natalie has to cart around in a carrier, also lends to this comparison. At an earlier point in the film Natalie is seen watching Kiarostami’s 2010 masterwork Certified Copy, a film that feeds into the theme of doubles present elsewhere.
Regarding the title of the film there is an interesting irony, as Things to Come (In French, L’Avenir, translating more literally to ‘the future’) spends very little time on the future, instead focusing on the present, with Natalie’s thoughts, feelings, and processes in the moment. As Screenprism’s Jutta Brendemühl rightly points out, there is only one point in which Natalie sits and contemplates, or indeed ruminates, on events that have passed or will pass. Beyond that she is left ‘pensive and pausing’ occasionally, but otherwise always in momentum, stalwart against fate’s ill-dealt hand. Moving with her is the camera, which typically isn’t too notable, but does shine when capturing the beautiful French countryside and when panning around Natalie’s home. The film is also rather quiet. Occasional musical interludes proving fairly effective, though few and far between – but this suits the tone of the film fairly well. These elements together result in a film that is both entertaining, thoughtful, and brilliantly acted, even by those cast members who don’t happen to be Isabelle Huppert. It isn’t without its flaws, like a length that feels a little unwieldly by the final twenty minutes, and it could also be claimed it isn’t a particularly eventful film, but despite this it succeeds in its aims, and is certainly worth seeing.
Things To Come is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD services. See the UK trailer below: