'Things to Come' is the year's other great Isabelle Huppert movie
Though very different from Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," Mia Hansen-Love's look at a plagued philosophy professor is just about its equal.
‘Things to Come’
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka
5 (out of 5) Globes
Nothing is permanent in the movies of Mia Hansen-Love. Halfway through “The Father of My Children,” what we assumed was our lead character — a frazzled-but-cool French film producer — offs himself, leaving his wife and children to pick up the pieces. “Goodbye, First Love” is indeed a movie about youthful heartbreak. The electronic music epic “Eden” runs long enough that a hot (but never big) DJ effectively ages out of his profession — left alone, penniless and without a marketable skill, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.
But Hansen-Love’s films are also about the permanence of life itself. If her protagonists are alive, they’re always kicking, even if that means fumbling about to overcome grief, heartache or the dissolution of a job. All three, as it happens, befall the hero of her fifth feature. Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie is a longtime philosophy professor with all the trappings of the bourgeois life: a handsome Parisian home, a husband (Andre Marcon) in the same profession, two smart and capable young adult kids. For its opening stretch, it’s not clear what “Things to Come” will even be about. It could simply be a deep stew in one woman’s specific world, one that mixes comfort with the restlessness of intellectual thought in an increasingly chaotic world.
Then cracks begin to show. Nathalie learns her husband has been cheating on her; when caught, he announces he’s decamping for his younger charge. Then it appears her grouchy, sickly mother (Edith Scob) is officially on the way out. Then the publishing company that has regularly released her philosophy anthologies — long her way of puffing up her so-so income as a teacher — is ending her services. Nathalie is suddenly adrift, though still always busy: She has to lug around her mother’s fat cat, and she finds herself spending more and more time with a former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who’s radical in the way she was at his age. He’ll later lure her away to a far-flung countryside commune with the likeminded. But the 60-something Nathalie — still fiery but no longer a revolutionary — doesn’t fit in there either. She’s a woman without a country.
The catch: She’s played by Isabelle Huppert. Nathalie is a big departure for the ice cold Huppert; you can’t ask for a better contrast between Hupperts than doing a double of “Things to Come” and her other new film, Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which is presently gobbling up awards for the legendary French actrice. Still, Nathalie isn’t that different from Michele, the tyrannical video game lord struggling in the aftermath of a sexual assault, in “Elle.” Huppert may get to cry in the Hansen-Love, but she’s still a survivor. Huppert could never not hold her head up and strut with great purpose, no matter what horrors are dumped on her characters. And so Nathalie endures, keeping her eyes on what’s in front of her, cool as a cucumber no matter what. The world may seem to no longer have a place for her, but Huppert’s steely presence tells us she’ll find one anyway.
Huppert’s a perfect fit for Hansen-Love. The actress has a natural gift for glomming onto her directors, becoming the equal, the partner-in-crime of filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke and, now, Paul Verhoeven. Hansen-Love is as tough as any of them. Her films are observational and episodic, but always in motion, always searching for what will come next. They’re not pitiless; they’re in fact teeming with emotions. But they’re detached and deceptively plain — documents of harried people containing the struggle within themselves.
“Things to Come” is calm and casually smart, dropping us into a world where no one bats an eye as they namedrop and discuss Adorno or Horkheimer or Rousseau. Whenever Nathalie deals with the naivete of young radicals, who sometimes misapply the days of ’May 68 to times that aren’t troubled in quite the same way, we’re not meant to pick sides. Like Nathalie, Hansen-Love wants us to embrace complexity, see the world as open, not closed. In its quiet, unassuming, almost workmanlike way, this is not the movie for our scary age, but one of many, and right there on the top rung.