One reason why Isabelle Huppert makes suffering so compelling onscreen is her sheer … well, "unflappability" isn't quite the right word. It’s a kind of ironic distance, perhaps: The actress can convey curiosity, bewilderment and coolness all at once, even as she deals with the most agonizing of circumstances. But there’s pain there, too, lurking just under the surface. Somewhere beneath the calm perseverance is an ever-present, though often subtle, vulnerability.
In the great pantheon of Huppert Hurt-a-thons, Mia Hansen-Løve's lovely new drama Things to Come is relatively mild, suffering-wise. There's no bodily harm or violation happening here (unlike, say, Paul Verhoeven’s decidedly stranger Elle, also in theaters). No, here she endures just a shitty divorce, a professional crisis and a sad-but-not-entirely-unexpected death in the family. Huppert plays Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor and author who has captivated generations of students and whose books are acclaimed, if not exactly hot sellers. Then her husband of many years — a fellow academic whose reputation for terrorizing his students matches Nathalie’s for inspiring them — leaves her for another woman. Then her frail, suicidal mother is moved into a nursing home. Then her publisher decides not to renew her contract. There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that.
Nathalie begins to feel not just the anxiety of a 50-something woman seemingly left alone in the world, but also a sense of renewed possibility: "I’ve gained my freedom," she tells her protégé and onetime student Fabien (Roman Kolinka), even if it doesn't quite seem like she believes it. Fabien, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who feels that one’s actions should be compatible with one’s thoughts, lives in a sprawling communal home near the mountains with other young thinkers. They survive off the land (as well as the generosity of local farmers) and debate things like how to repudiate the supremacy of the author, and how that imperative complies with their collective ethos. He still holds Nathalie in high esteem, but also challenges her bourgeois lifestyle. Nathalie seems to admire the spirit of Fabian and his friends, though she doesn’t seem sure if she’s cut out for this life.
There is an almost cosmic-joke quality to the way misfortune follows Nathalie; Hansen-Løve has structured things in such a way as to make sure that the bad news and outrageous occurrences regularly arrive in clusters. But the director and her star never indulge in misery or melodrama. Rather, Things to Come is a relentlessly questioning, searching film. It’s not for nothing that so many of its characters are philosophers or philosophy students. Everyone here, in life and in work, is wrestling with that elemental question: How do we live in the world, especially when we have no idea what’s next? (The film’s French title, L’Avenir, could be more simply translated as “The Future”; presumably, it wasn’t called that because we’ve already had way too many movies called The Future.)
Nathalie’s discussions with her students focus on questions of truth, goodness and certainty. “Can the truth be questioned?” she asks her class. “Debating truth is one thing, contesting it is another.” In other words, facts are facts, but their nature can change. That’s a good way to describe Hansen-Løve’s style, too: It is both grounded and loose. Her compositions are matter-of-fact, her angles eye-level; she’s not an expressionist. And yet her camera drifts, sometimes subtly, exploring even the most mundane of spaces and situations with trepidation and possibility.
In Hansen-Løve’s previous film, the masterful techno-music odyssey Eden, the floating nature of her style made for an ideal correlative to the depiction of a subculture in which remaining fixed or assuming responsibility was seen as almost obscene. Here, it speaks to the fact that, as the dominoes of Nathalie’s life fall around her, even the most mundane experience becomes one of unpredictability. As we watch this woman lose her family, her status and maybe even some part of her pride, we sense both the horror and the intoxication of freedom.