By Nick Pinkerton in the November-December 2016 Issue
The title card of Things to Come appears as the capstone on a prologue in which a couple and their two young children pay a visit to Chateaubriand’s grave on a lonesome tidal island near Saint-Malo. This, we may infer, is among the “things to come”—the silence and solitude of the grave.
There is a school of thought that believes cinema ought to be inextricably entwined with the unconquerable spirit of reckless youth, and to such a mindset the recent films of Mia Hansen-Løve must constitute an unspeakable betrayal. Her latest centers on a sixtyish philosophy professor, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), half of that couple on Saint-Malo, whom we re-encounter some years later, bearing up under a barrage of late-middle-age milestones: a crumbling marriage, the failing health of her hypochondriac mother (Édith Scob), and her own total inability to connect to the radicalism of her youth, renascent among the student population in the discontent of the Nicolas Sarkozy era, when most of the film is set. Like Hansen-Løve’s EDM epic Eden (2014)—a movie haunted by bad drugs, metabolism and bank accounts bottoming out, and a sense of lost utopia—Things to Come is concerned with someone cobbling together a usable future out of the diminished possibilities left before them. It is, in other words, defiantly adult.
As with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which in many ways offers a ghoulish fun-house reflection of Hansen-Løve’s film, Huppert appears in every scene of Things to Come, usually keeping a stiff upper lip through the succession of little blows and slights that altogether constitute a steady emotional buffeting, a running of the gauntlet that is quite literally visualized when she has to shoulder her way past students blockading the entrance to the building where her class is held. And so the punishment begins: soon Nathalie’s husband, Heinz (André Marcon), a fellow academic and conservative stick-in-the-mud whose lifelong credo is Kant’s “starry sky above me and moral law within me,” displays uncharacteristic impulsiveness by falling for another woman. Their consequent split is carried out without screaming or rancor, but the gaps his departure leaves on their once-shared bookshelf suggest phantom-limb trauma. (Not since The Squid and the Whale has a movie so perfectly evoked the pain of divvying up property.) Adding insult to injury, her academic publisher is trying to sell her on editions of her old textbooks tarted up with groovy new covers. It is only through someone taking a shot at her books, we sense, that Nathalie can be truly harmed.
The most important relationship in Nathalie’s life outside of her library, family circle, and the obese comic-relief cat she’s saddled with after her mother’s death, is with a former student and protégé of sorts, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who has thrown himself full-bodied into the radical politics in which she dabbled in her youth, and whom she twice goes to visit in a rustic communal house in the countryside. The tousled, handsome, tastefully tatted-up Fabien is spoken for romantically, but there is an undeniable attraction between Nathalie and him, even or perhaps particularly evident when they bicker over his arrogant observation about the distance between her intellectual life and her lived experience. (“Why not outgrow these schematics,” she replies. “They’re sterile.”) From their first scene together there is a sense that a countdown has begun to their finally tumbling into bed, but—though the possibility of this occurring is left a teasing question mark—this cloudburst moment appears nowhere in the film.
Hansen-Løve’s film is operating outside the schematic categories of fulfillment and frustration, while her heroine is beyond the illusion of eternal renewal—this in contrast to her mother, whom we see playing the coquette up to the bitter end, a role that Scob and Hansen-Løve give its own sort of dignity. Huppert, wary but never closed off, embodies a woman who knows too well that she has control over nothing beyond the boundaries of her own body and mind, but who retains absolute dominion over that citadel. This is as much victory as is available to most of us before the inevitable defeat: the end is predetermined, but there is work to be done while the light lasts.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Film Comment and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.