[Note: This is a re-post of our review from the Telluride Film Festival; Things to Come opens in limited release this weekend, December 2]
Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden) is a master of mood. Her stories are simple but profoundly rendered. In describing her newest film, Things to Come, it might sound like a massive familial melodrama, but Hansen-Løve does the exact opposite. She and actress Isabelle Huppert film a series of events in which we’re accostomed to the protagonist having complete mental breakdowns, but instead we are shown someone calmly navigating them and re-evaluating their perceived truths. Because Huppert is so exquisite and Hansen-Løve is so admirably in control, Things to Come is a great character study where the individual scenes will linger and stir longer than you’d expect. And if you’re a Huppert fan, seeing her give an obese black cat the “punishment” of a big hug, this is one of many small moments that will rise in your head like the calm mountain mist that lifts from a French valley.
Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux a philosophy professor and essayist. She is a mother of two and a wife to another professor (Andre Marcon). Nathalie challenges her students, but she’s also very warm. She is preparing them to question the world around them, but she’s also annoyed by the freshman students who are blocking the entrance to the school, protesting the educational hiring practices that appears to be leaving out the youth. This entrance blocking is the first and most vocal and confrontational of many tidy life things that will soon change for Nathalie. Next, her husband announces that he’s leaving her for another woman, after that her publisher informs her that her textbooks will not be reprinted in new editions as previously discussed, and to add to those new upheavals, her emotionally distraught mother (Holy Motors‘ and Eyes Without a Face‘s Edith Scob) needs not only assisted living care, but Nathalie’s extra care toward the providers that she shuns.
These are many life changes thrust upon Nathalie at once. And Huppert plays it rationally instead of histrionically. And Hansen-Løve presents them not as an oppressive force that should cause her to wilt, but as a reverberation within her life. This should not be read as a cold or distant approach from either performer or director, for Nathalie is both very intelligent and emotionally intelligent.
Nathalie’s larger plight is figuring out how to own her newfound freedom from the regularities of a longtime publisher and a longtime husband. From the outset, it appears that Nathalie will join her radical former student (Roman Kolinka), an essayist whom she champions (and whose radical off-the-grid writings will continue to be published by her publisher), who’s purchased a farm commune with a philosophical collective in the countryside. But much how Nathalie viewed the protesting students as impeding knowledge with a big vocal show, she realizes that her quiet liberalism suits her, for she has done radicalism in her youth. She now understands that, for her, survival isn’t complex, but simple and quiet.
Simplicity is not a pejorative term when it comes to Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking abilities. Despite setting a simple story, she is deceptively warm and cradling of Nathalie in her transition to acceptance. Her camera casually tilts and moves into interesting frames of Huppert. Her musical selections are sparse but sublime (particularly the radical value use of Woody Guthrie and the minimal dreaminess of Donovan and The Fleetwoods).
In Huppert, Hansen-Løve has a performer who can give immense lift to any situation. At this point laying laurels at Huppert’s feet is a given, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Her reactions to major life events play counter to what we’d expect from an actress or a loved one, but they are well-intentioned, good-humored and quieter approaches to carrying on. There’s wry humor throughout Things to Come, and it isn’t at the expense of anyone. Life just has an innate silliness, whether it’s finding a telephone signal or staying up at night waiting for your dying mother’s cat that you don’t really enjoy but nonetheless enjoy that its presence is constant.
I’ve admired Hansen-Løves serene ability to convey tenderness with her camera, but she’s never worked with an actor as talented as Huppert before. And witnessing them work together is a perfect understanding of a performer to the director’s intent. Nathalie is dealt blows, but Things to Come is a meditative film about knowing where to place those blows, not about what knocks someone over. Just as Hansen-Løve’s camera routinely finds small rays of sunshine, Huppert routinely finds the right moment of levity, whether it’s in between tears on a bus, or asking a man who’s attracted to her to leave her be, or punishing a cat with an embrace. There are no screaming matches in Things to Come, but there is nonetheless real pain, but it’s the type of pain that causes you to ache. And it’s the aches that have a root in warmth and familiarity, just as Things to Come.