Expectations certainly weigh into anyone’s reaction to a film (or any work of art), so I fear the nearly universal rave reviews for Things to Come will hurt some viewers’ experience of a very good, though perhaps overpraised, feature. Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve and star Isabelle Huppert bring admirable conviction to this portrait of a woman grappling with major personal and profession turmoil at an age when most people hope for stability. Still, though never less than engaging, when the credits rolled I wondered if this slice of life drama isn’t matter-of-fact to a fault.
In ideal casting, Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a respected author and college professor who is stunned when her husband (prodded to confess by their daughter) announces he is leaving her for a younger woman. I can’t think of an actress better than Huppert at subtly hinting at the deep cracks hidden inside characters with steely resolve. Indeed, though Nathalie’s life is far more conventional, the frustratingly reserved character isn’t that far removed from the impassive, disturbed woman Huppert plays in Elle – another fine performance from last year which may garner the veteran actress her first Oscar nomination.
Huppert perfectly conveys both the angst Nathalie endures and the calm, world-weary way she chooses to respond to it. In addition to her marriage falling apart, the proud academic is forced to deal with young publishers who talk in soul-killing marketing lingo, wanting to “rebrand” her respected scholarly tomes. But though she bristles at their reasoning, she also accepts that her preferred way of working is going the way of the dinosaur.
In a similarly defeatist attitude, while she admires the revolutionary spirit of a favorite former student (Roman Kolinka), she mainly sees protests on campus as an intrusion on her cerebral haven. She is aware of the political upheaval around her, but can’t see herself as part of its future. She is a “woman of books” who seems to only tolerate things outside of her intellectual passions.
Though this Things to Come is nothing like the 1936 sci-fi classic of the same name, it is also a movie about momentous changes triggered by the passage of time. Here, though, those changes are shown from a personal, contemporary viewpoint. As a writer, Hansen-Løve is a sharp observer of social dynamics and their underlying political factors. She is less concerned with upping the emotional stakes, so those eagerly waiting for the movie’s big explosive moments may walk away disappointed. This is a movie about a woman holding back, and Hansen-Løve does the same as dramatist.
For all its sociopolitical depths, Things to Come is most effective as a basic, universal portrait of loneliness. With her husband gone, her children grown and her professional security slipping away, Nathalie takes refuge in the comforts of both the past (visits with the former student) and the future (a new grandchild) and also becomes unexpectedly protective of the anti-social cat she inherits from her mother. (Huppert and cats have gone hand-in-hand recently, with a feline also a major supporting player in Elle.)
Hansen-Løve depicts Nathalie’s ups and downs with graceful, subtle camerawork and meticulously detailed settings. Still, her deliberate emotional restraint will hold the movie back from potentially greater impact for a lot of viewers. Like Nathalie, Things to Come is both strong and sympathetic, but maybe just a little bit too remote and set in its patterns.
Things to Come. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. Cinematography by Denis Lenoir. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka and Edith Scob.
103 mins. In French with English subtitles. No MPAA rating.
Opens Friday, January 20 at the Music Box Theatre.
Filed under: TV & Film